27 December 2009
I was lucky to be on holiday in the Coromandel when I received news of the mass stranding of pilot whales in Colville Bay, just 30km up the road. Unfortunately I didn’t have my stranding bag with me so I wasted precious time pulling stuff together; a valuable lesson learnt for the future. I rounded up some other friends and we hit the road.
When we reached the beach I was blown away by how many people were already there. DOC had recruited lots of volunteers from the local camp site. There were also local Iwi and Buddhists from The Mahamudra centre doing everything they could. Seeing so many people working together was an awesome sight. After a quick assessment of the whales (about 20 had been "tagged" as they hadn't survived) it was time for action.
Each whale had a team of people around it so my focus was on rotating between the whales and people and offering support and advice where I could. A few of the whales were badly sunburned so I fetched more sheets to cover them up. I also explained the importance of digging out holes around the fins to make the whales more comfortable and reminded people to look after themselves. By this stage some had been there for hours. They were cold and tired but you could see the determination on their faces. The beach had lots of sharp shells and there were a lot of cut fingers and feet, but everyone continued to muck in, oblivious to their own war wounds, their focus clearly on the whales.
For safety reasons DOC made the decision to clear the beach of kids. The tide was turning and the water was starting to rise. Project Jonah volunteers were asked to help with this process; a difficult job as lots of kids were reluctant to leave.
Before we knew it though, it was time to refloat the whales. A trench had been dug at low tide and slowly and carefully we moved each whale down the channel and out to the deeper water. Despite the cold, spirits were high and the energy was very positive, with most people giving strong words of encouragement to their whales.
Finally DOC gave the command to release the whales. We released and stepped back but a number of the whales toppled over and we stepped back in to roll them upright.
The cold was starting to get to me and I knew that the time had come for me to get back to shore. It was tough turning away but it took all my strength to swim back to shore.
I hung around on the beach for an hour or so in case of a re-stranded but the whales all seemed to be heading in the right direction. I was suddenly overcome with exhaustion. I made my way back to the car and was relieved to find my two teenage cousins texting their mates and telling them about their amazing day. I had to concur. It was a once in a lifetime experience.