7 February 2011
As a trained Project Jonah marine mammal medic, I was alerted to a pod of more than eighty whales stranded in Golden Bay and in urgent need of help. I wanted to help and drove from Christchurch, through the night, to arrive at first light.
Golden Bay is a death trap for whales. The gently sloping beach means whales’ sonars don’t warn them of the deceptive shoreline and Farewell Spit is right within their migration route.
I arrived to learn the whales had sadly stranded for the third time and seventeen had died. They were disoriented, weak and possibly injured. The instinct to aid a distressed fellow whale meant the entire pod was inadvertently beaching themselves. It was tragic.
The whales had stranded in three groups along the coastline. Over fifty volunteers, including other marine mammal medics from around the country, were administering basic first aid. I was assigned to a pod of twenty-six whales, most around five metres in length. The pod included a small calf as well.
As we anxiously waited for high tide, we kept the whales upright, wet and cool to protect their sensitive skin from sunlight. They were communicating with each other and it was sad to see such beautiful animals so helpless. We gently comforted and talked to them in an effort to keep them calm. It was an amazing experience to look into their eyes and share a gaze.
The refloating rescue was a fantastic team effort. With two to three people per whale, we supported their bodies while the water level rose. The whales could clearly sense freedom was close as they began vocalizing much more. In a coordinated effort, we waited for the first pod of whales that had been released further down the coast to reach us before we released our pod towards them. We watched in awe as our pod swam towards the others. The remaining group of volunteers were signaled to release their pod with perfect timing to join the rest of the group. Victory!
Many of us kept vigil in the bay for another day until the pod was safely out in deep water. I left feeling elated that a team of determined individuals, through teamwork and conviction, had saved sixty-seven whales. DOC and Project Jonah are amazing. The volunteers were awesome and the whales, well they were just lucky that a group of compassionate individuals could band together against the odds and save them.