20 January 2012
The text came through Friday evening about 10.30pm: “Whale stranding”. Could I be at Triangle Flat on Saturday at 7am?
I didn’t hesitate to text back straight away “YES”.
I trained as a marine mammal medic over a year ago, so I’d be there & ready to help on Saturday morning. I quickly ran through my mental list - oops, after kayaking I had left my wetsuit hanging to dry at a friend’s. So I hopped in the car and drove to retrieve it.
Before dawn I was up, adding more food to my grab bag and getting a full hot breakfast down me – I knew I could be in the water a long time and it could be a while before eating again. It was a good job I checked my bag and ate before I left. Some volunteers weren’t prepared, they were so keen to help, but they didn’t think to bring any food for the day!
I arrived before 7am and hopped on the first lift with DOC down the beach to the stranding. A few people were already in the water.
I assisted two whales: one was a weak male and the other a stroppy female. When I arrived the male was laying on his side, breathing rapidly and spewing fluid from his blow hole. I helped several DOC workers roll him upright, then stayed to support him. I felt relieved when his breathing slowed to a normal rate, indicating I was reducing his stress level.
It was thrilling to see the communication between the whales: the stroppy female called to the male. She worked her way over to him, squirming and thrashing her fluke until she got her head under him to help him turn over. I hadn’t expected to see that kind of interaction between the whales.
More volunteers had arrived by then, enough for every whale to have a helper, so I passed the weak male on to another volunteer and endeavoured to guide the female in the desired direction, with varying degrees of success.
It was a bit disconcerting at times...I don’t know what’s normal whale behaviour. She could swim fairly rapidly on her side as the tide came in - was she disoriented or smart? When the tide came in whales were rolling over in the water, swimming upside down, and sideways... I didn’t know if they were joyful or if they were saying “Help I don’t know up from down!”
The whales seemed to relax as they received assistance, their breathing slowed down, but then when they were reunited together they appeared stressed again, with rapid breathing rates. I don’t know if it was a problem though – perhaps it was adrenaline and excitement at getting close to each other again. They milled about in a tight knot, touching each other.
The stranding atmosphere was calmer than I expected from previous media hype. Most people were quiet and relaxed. Messages weren’t always getting through to everyone, but it still worked out really well.
It would be an asset to be taller though, in rough water I would have had to back out earlier because I’m vertically challenged (short).
I trained as a zoologist years ago and I’ve always been interested in wildlife rescue. It’s something I can still do at my stage in life. Since I trained more than a year ago, I was worried I would forget what to do, but it wasn't a problem. I remembered. I'm local, I'm handy and this is where I'm needed. I live only a few kilometres from one of the worst stranding sites.
I went home after we refloated the whales and got warm and dry so I could return in the afternoon refreshed and ready to help again. But I was pleasantly surprised the whales didn’t re-strand and I didn’t have to get back in the water. It would not be a long wet evening!
I was well prepared though, I had my full wetsuit with a paddling jacket overtop and neoprene gloves. It’s all about being prepared!