21 August 2010
As we reached the top of the dunes we were hit by the grisly sight of piles of dead whales. The live whales were still on the beach with a few hardy volunteers. The DOC coordinator explained that they had lost one whale since they were found and the objective for the night would be to keep the remaining fourteen alive. I was given one of the two large males and we began digging holes for his fins, supporting him with sand bags and pouring water over him. All the while trying to keep him calm.
Unfortunately the rain soon eased, so ferrying buckets of water to each whale to prevent them from overheating and drying out in the wind was the major challenge for the night. I was glad that I had remembered my Project Jonah training, especially the advice about what to bring to a stranding. While others were getting cold, wet and hungry, I was wrapped up in my dry suit and thermals and had a flask of hot coffee and chocolate to keep me going.
There were only one or two volunteers for each whale so people were bringing each other water as required. Each whale had a glow stick at its head to indicate that it needed attention. By the middle of the night I'd named my whale “Guinness”. I told him about my children, my love of diving and the stress of quitting smoking. We discussed the possible lowering of the driving age, the All Whites’ performance in the World Cup and whether track pants ever make a positive fashion statement. He gazed at me, occasionally making a slight popping sound and appearing to understand every word I said.
DOC moved from person to person asking for reports on each whales breathing, temperature and general condition. Occasionally they would try and co-ordinate an adjustment to the whale’s position, but we didn’t have enough people to undertake major moves. We were offered coffee and milo to keep us warm and told to take breaks if we were tired. By about 4am the beach had an eerie calm about it. The only light was the fourteen glow sticks and the occasional torch light. We were all whispering to try and keep the whales calm, and they had all been named by their care givers.
As the sun came up we were told the plan of attack. The surf was still too rough to risk re-floating the whales from Karikari beach so they would be moved over the peninsula for release at Maitai Bay, which would be much calmer. Guinness already had a sling underneath him so he would be the first to go. I would be travelling on the truck with him to keep him calm and once back in the water I was to stay with him as long as possible, keeping him in the shallows until everyone else was ready to be released.
There were some delays in getting diggers set up at the other beach, so it was mid-morning before the the move could begin. As the sun got warmer it became even harder to keep Guinness cool. He was also showing signs of sunburn on his tail and dorsal fin. Fortunately other volunteers began to arrive and I soon had a core of three other people helping me. They were fetching water and pouring it over him, leaving me free to talk to him and keep him calm. By this stage we had started to connect and he was responding to my voice.
Finally the digger arrived to lift Guinness and place him on the flatbed truck. He had already been moved onto a mat so it was a quick job to clip this on to the lifting frame. Unfortunately he was too big for the mat. His tail started to slip and he panicked; his tail thrashed and his breathing turned into a frantic sounding series of gasps. He was quickly lowered back on to the sand where I tried to calm him down.
The lifting crew moved on the next whale. They would return and move Guinness once the other smaller whales had been moved. I was asked to keep talking to him. We don’t know how much they understand, but they respond to familiar voices and touch. This gave me the confidence to stay calm and get Guinness through the day.
The next few hours passed even more slowly than the night. People came over to watch and help but Guinness seemed to get more agitated with lots of people around. Two teenage boys came over and offered to get me a coffee, which was very welcome. Someone fed me a banana for lunch and left me with a water bottle.
As the digger approached Guinness again, he became stressed, presumably remembering the failed attempt to lift him earlier in the day. We were told that if he panicked we would need to abort. No one was suggesting that he would have to be euthanized, but they didn’t have to. I knew the stakes.
I explained to Guinness what was going to happen, and told him that all he had to do was focus on me. “Listen to the sound of my voice” became a chant. The digger moved closer and his breathing got quicker. I raised my voice and continued talking to him, resting my hand on his shoulder for as long as I could while the lifting crew hooked him up and suspended a sling to support his tail. He twitched his tail and moved his head slightly in the sling. Everyone froze, waiting for him to panic. I moved forward and put my hand on his shoulder again, repeating the chant “Listen to the sound of my voice”. He stopped moving and looked up at me. The crew continued to swing him on to the back of the truck, lowering him onto a bed of hay. I scrambled up onto the truck, still chanting “Listen to the sound of my voice”. Ned and two other volunteers climbed up beside me, with buckets of water. I crouched next to Guinness, gazing into his eyes as I continued to chant and the truck slowly moved off.
How he found the strength to make the journey I’ll never know. I didn’t stop chanting until the lifting crew sprung into action at the other end. I told him that this was it, his final lift, and that soon he’d be back in the water. He’d done it and I was so proud of him.
He continued to gaze at me as the crew swung him round and lowered him into the water. At first he held his breath. For nearly a minute his blowhole was underwater. Then he raised his own head and blew a triumphant breath, showering all of us with his spray. From that point on his breathing continued to slow down. At first he seemed a little unbalanced and we rocked him gently in the water to restore his equilibrium. He leant lopsidedly against us, but within a few minutes was holding his own position and moving forward to swim.
Most of the support crew stepped away, leaving two of us guiding, rather than supporting him. We had been warned that we might have to hold him for several hours in the water since he had been out of the water for so long. Within fifteen minutes though he was swimming strongly, checking in on his mates. A couple of times he turned back to me and head butted me in what seemed like a playful gesture.
As with most strandings, one whale was placed in a pontoon and taken out to deeper water. We were asked to move our whales together and prepare to release them. I knelt down next to Guinness and explained that this was goodbye, that I would always love him and if he ever saw me in the water again he should say hello. I gave him one last gentle stroke and released him with the other whales.
There was suddenly an outburst of noise from the beach as everyone tried to herd the whales out. Cars tooted their horns and everyone in the water was shouting and splashing. Amid the chaos I watched Guinness swim away.
In the space of a few minutes I suddenly felt tired, hungry and emotional. Back on the beach someone was offering hot drinks to the volunteers, which was welcome, but everything became a bit of a blur. I got out of my dry suit and struggled into the car. On the beach I had promised Guinness that I wouldn't smoke again if he made it, but home was now calling me and I couldn't wait for a celebratory drink.