Justine Sanderson's Story

Project Jonah Stranding Advice Basic First Aid 10

2 March 2011


I got the text at 1.07pm. I'll admit I spent an agonising 10 minutes debating whether to go. My sense of adventure said “Yes!”, but Google Maps was telling me that Spirits Bay is a long six hours away.

By 2.00pm, I was out the door having grabbed wetsuit, booties, tent, sleeping bag, lots of warm clothes, food, and - at the last minute - a stuff-sack of toiletries: toothbrush and toothpaste, sunscreen and lip-balm, which would turn out to be invaluable. 

The drive north was uneventful. I listened to the news of the stranding on National Radio, trying not to get alarmed by the numbers they were reporting. I stopped for coffee at Kawakawa - knowing I was on an unusual mission whilst people around me didn't know what I was up to.

I knew Spirits Bay was well the way up north; it's only later as I was getting closer that I realised that the next stop was Cape Reinga! I arrived just before dark at around 7.45pm. I quickly changed into my wetsuit and warm clothes and, with a few others, headed to the beach to relieve the first rescuers.

The first night

As we walked along the beach in the dark, I sensed a bit of nervousness as to what we would find. Somebody let out a yelp as we stumbled across our first dead whale - a juvenile with its face turned towards us.

There were five groups of whales, stretched along approx. 2kms of the beach. They had already been pulled up above the high water mark and covered with sheets. I was initially assigned to one group, but was soon asked to move to the next group at the far end of the beach by the creek. This group had two large whales and two babies who, unfortunately, had quite a few injuries due to stranding among the rocks.

Sometimes there was only one of us per whale; sometimes more, depending on the time of night. There were DOC staff, Orca researcher Ingrid Visser, and Marine Biologist Karen Stocken with some of her students. There was a lot of discussing the state of the whales and possible next steps. I remember asking questions, but mostly listening, trying to glean as much information as possible about how best to help the whales, and what the plan might be to re-float them.

One of the larger whales had been nicknamed Charlotte by another volunteer, so I suggested we call the other one "Wilbur" (after Charlotte's Web).

At one stage, there were enough of us to try and make the whales more comfortable. Wilbur was probably one of the larger whales, and it took a few attempts to get him straightened up -  rolling him, supporting him with sand bags, and digging the sand to free his lateral fins.

Then, it was the constant ferrying of buckets of water back and forth under the full moon, trying to keep him and Charlotte cool. Despite the bad weather, I don’t remember feeling cold. It was only when I occasionally popped behind the dunes that I realised how relentless the wind was.

At 4.30am, I headed back to my car, set the alarm for 5.30, and although my mind was racing from the day’s event, I must have grabbed a bit of sleep.


5.30am. I grabbed a coffee from the marquee the locals had set up – missing out on the porridge that wasn’t quite ready, and headed back along the stream to the end of the beach.

Some new people, same job - bucketing water and comforting the whales. Sarah, the student from Massey and a German intern; later another student I had met before: Manu. Toby and Sue. Kurt. Brian and Anne-Louise.

Finally day broke, and the sun started inching its way over the bluff behind us. We could look down the full stretch of beautiful Spirits Bay. Unfortunately, we could also make out many more dead whales washed up in the distance.

News of the plan started filtering through. The whales would be moved one by one to the stream behind the dunes - starting from the other end of the beach. This meant Wilbur, Charlotte, and the babies Aqua and Bella would stay the longest on the beach. 

More trips to the creek for water, more freeing of the fin. Occasional trips back to camp to grab some food. At one stage, Kim from Project Jonah grabbed me to help out in the lagoon which was slowly filling up with the other whales.

At some stage that day, Wilbur seemed to be really struggling. His breathing was laboured: he would take one deep breath, and then open his blowhole wide again, but without inhaling or exhaling. We were wondering whether he would make it.  His left fin was constantly hot, and my fingers got raw from constantly trying to dig under it to make him more comfortable. Luckily, a group of exchange students arrived, eager to help. Wilbur probably had more water poured on him in that next hour than he had had in the previous 24 hours and he seemed to perk up.

Finally, it was his turn to be matted and lifted up. The crane-crew was a well-oiled machine by then, but I can only imagine they would have been exhausted.  Wilbur was one of the larger whales, so we had to roll him onto 2 mats, and his dorsal fin barely fitted through the lifting frame. I just talked to him gently as the noise of the crane got closer - hoping this would help. I could barely watch as he got lifted up by the crane. A two-tonne whale being lifted metres into the air does look rather out of place. Inevitably, I think he got a few more scratches and bruises. I hopped in the trailer for the ride to the lagoon. All was going well until Wilbur decided to flip his tail out of the trailer.

There was another tense five minutes when Wilbur was first lifted into the water as he failed to take a breath. I'll admit, I did say something to the effect of "Come on, Wilbur, don't give up on me now." One of the guys thought we’d lost him, but someone else pointed out that his blowhole was still quivering, so… It did feel like one of those medical dramas where you felt you were going to have to call “time of death”.

Finally, however, and to a huge sigh of relief from everyone – that sound of a whale breathing and the accompanying spray. We gently rocked him to help him regain his balance. He rolled a few times – which is quite frightening at first as you worry that they’ll take a breath underwater and drown.

Having only seen his shiny torpedo-black top, seeing Wilbur from this different perspective – his white underbelly and his huge jaw from close up - was quite an experience. The temptation is to straighten them but apparently you want to let them roll, and only intervene if it looks like they're not going to roll back on their own.

Unfortunately, with only a 3/4 wetsuit, I couldn’t stay in the water much longer. I would not spend much more time with Wilbur for the next couple of days but would check on him regularly.

Thursday night

With all the whales finally in the lagoon, it was time to plan for the night ahead. I was rostered on to the graveyard shift. I watched the moon come up again, pitched my tent and tried to catch up some sleep, with my alarm set for 3am.

The scene that morning was probably the most eerie. Rain showers were coming through, and the wind was still bitter. One generator on the dunes provided a bit of light, a glow stick had been placed in front of each whale in their make-shift marina, and headlamps either bobbed up and down in the water or moved quietly along the shore. The mood was industrious but subdued. I wish I could convey the sound of the whales’ syncopated breathing.

More people were needed in the water than initially anticipated to help keep the whales stable. I wasn’t able to help out in the water so tried to make myself useful in other ways – chatting to people in the water, checking to see who needed to be relieved, handing out food or hot drinks. The worst job – even though they’d asked for it – was to give someone a wake-up call!


Day broke again – though I somehow missed the sunrise. Onto the next stage of lifting the whales into trucks for the 50km trip to Rarawa.

I initially helped put the mats under the whales to ferry them across to 'Pier 1' below the crane, ready for lifting. Then, once the whales were in the trucks, they had to be made comfortable and kept cool. It was a struggle finding enough hoses, buckets and people to keep them all watered, but we got there, even recruiting some children and other bystanders to help fill up dozens of small water bottles. Every little bit helped. And it was hard work lifting those buckets above head height, handing them up to the people in the truck.

Again, I remember taking stock of the situation, and being amazed by the surreal-ness of it all:  high up in a truck, overlooking the beautiful scenery of Spirits Bay, carefully tip-toeing around four whales, trying to avoid stepping on fins or being hit by a flailing tail, moving hay bales and sandbags around to make sure they would stay upright. There's not much room in a truck when you are sharing it with four whales!

The whole operation was a logistical nightmare. The whales had to be measured to work out how many could fit in each truck, and how best to arrange them. Also, there weren’t enough mats. I had carefully made one whale comfortable in a truck, when it was realised that the mat underneath him was needed. He had to be rolled and lifted again. In the same truck, one poor whale had the tail of the whale in front of him lying on its head, and the lateral fin of another close to its eye – so we had to move him back a little.

Getting all the whales into the trucks took a lot of work and a lot of time. Finally, it was time for the 50km drive to Rarawa. It was getting late and we knew it would be race against time to get them unloaded and in the water once there.

We left just after the first truck. We passed it as it pulled up alongside the road for one of its several rewatering stops. We treated ourselves to a coffee and an ice-cream at the first dairy we came to, laughed embarrassingly at the dairy owners taking a photo of us, had a quick chat with the crew from TV3, and waved and cheered as two of the trucks overtook us again.  I wonder if any of the others cars on the road realised that several 2-tonne whales had just gone by?

We arrived at the beautiful long stretch of white sandy beach at Rarawa. One truck was already there and the others arrived soon after. They hadn’t taken long but unfortunately news came through that three of the whales hadn’t made it and one died whilst being unloaded.

My job became organising volunteers into teams of six for each of the remaining 20 whales – each with at least one 'experienced' person. Not an easy task with so many people milling around!

Slowly but surely, each of the whales was lifted into the water and the teams rushed to their side. Finally, the last whale was in. The rest had drifted down the beach. It was an amazing line-up: 20 whales, 120+ volunteers - all bobbing in the surf. Some of them would have spent hours just standing there, gently rocking their whale.

It was getting dark and I was starting to feel the cold. I walked down the beach to where all the whales and volunteers had drifted down. I couldn't help it: I had to enquire about Wilbur.

Someone pointed him out: he was by one of the DOC boats, chosen as one of the ‘magnet’ whales. It was good to know he had made it this far.

Finally, on dusk, the call came to turn the whales, then to release them. We splashed the water, clapped, cheered, making noise to encourage the whales to move out to sea. Some did, some lingered in the shallows. We could barely see. It was time to get out of the water.

We headed back to the catering tent. Shivering, exhausted but relieved, I grabbed some food. There was a happy – dare I say it – ‘party atmosphere’ in the marquee. In the end, I was glad the release had happened on dusk. We couldn’t be sure all the whales had made it out, but maybe it was better that way. A re-stranding is always a possibility and witnessing it in the daylight would have been heart-breaking. It was best to know that we had worked hard for three days, done everything possible, and get a sense of closure. There was nothing more that could be done.

Finally, it was time for the long drive back to Auckland.  I’m glad I didn’t have to drive back on my own. Despite the detour it would involve, giving Kim from Project Jonah a ride home meant that the two of us could reflect, relive, share stories (and mostly not fall asleep!) I arrived home at 3am, and a week later, I was still reflecting on what is probably one of the most enriching and amazing experiences of my life.
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