10 February 2011
Three months after training as a Project Jonah Marine Mammal Medic I was called to my first whale stranding.
It was a Saturday morning in February when I got an emergency text message from Project Jonah, and by 2.30am the following morning I was on a ferry to Picton from my home in Wellington.
There was a mass stranding of whales at Farewell Spit - at the top of the South Island - and I was on my way to help rescue them.
After a drive from Picton, I arrived at Triangle Flat at 10am where volunteers were trying to re-float about 25 whales.
I changed into my wetsuit and headed out to the beach to help. As I got closer I could see the shapes of whales everywhere. They were piled up against each other and there weren’t enough people to help.
I sat beside one of the whales and helped roll him upright with another volunteer.
It’s amazing to talk to a whale and have it look you straight in the eye.
More people were turning up to help and soon every whale had at least one person to comfort it. As the tide came in the whales began to whistle, click and honk, with excitement. They started moving around, and soon there were tails flapping all around us.
It’s amazing how such powerful animals seemed so gentle and allowed us to guide them.
As the water reached waist height we held the whales upright until we were given the signal to release them. When we did, it was the most amazing experience watching the pod re-unite. The whales rubbed up against each other and when you put your head underwater you could hear the clicks and whistles as they called to each other.
We formed a human chain between the whales and the beach and moved back so they could move move out to the safety of deeper water.
Afterward DOC arranged for teams of volunteers to keep watch over four beaches that were likely places the whales could re-strand. I was paired up with another volunteer Chantal and we walked along the second beach, looking out to sea for signs of a fin.
Just as it started to get dark at about 7pm and we were thinking about heading back to town - the whales were spotted heading for shore again. Back on with the wetsuits, we were soon heading for the water again.
As we got to the low tide area there were starfish all over the sand - it looked so beautiful. But approaching the water’s edge I could see a worrying sight - not all the whales were swimming, they were coming in to re-strand.
I looked back towards the road and there was no sign of the other volunteers, so Chantal and I headed into the water. The first whale we came to was already completely grounded and at least four other whales were too, with more coming in.
We started to turn the whales around. I watched as the rest of the pod swam towards me. It was scary standing in the middle of a pod of 60 whales but it was awe inspiring too.
I looked back at the whale we had left grounded closest to shore because it was so big and difficult to move. I could just see a fin between gaps in the waves. I watched as it rolled over to take a breath and then sank back down again. With encouragement from myself and Chantal it started to move and finally with a couple of powerful strokes it headed for open water with the rest of the pod.
We made our way to shore where we were met with cheering and congratulations from the other Project Jonah volunteers. My muscles ached everywhere and my calves were cramping.
The next day we walked out to the water’s edge checking for signs of another re-stranding. All morning we tracked the whales as they swam off shore to deeper water.
It was amazing to be part of the huge effort at Farewell Spit with people from all over the country united in one goal. Names and professions were not important - all that mattered was doing everything we could to save these amazing animals.
The Marine Mammal Medic training prepared me well for the experience that day at Farewell Spit. With Project Jonah, I always had faith I was in good hands.