Mary Hodgson

farewell spit 2-385
22 February 2021

The "whales" experience was pretty special. A few years ago, Steve and I did a marine mammal medic course with Project Jonah. We were taught a lot about whales and how to help them if they strand.

Last Monday I got the call to go and help with the stranding at Farewell Spit, which is a couple of hours drive away. I packed my wetsuit and some food, my tent and sleeping bag and a change of clothes, and set off. By the time I got there, the tide had come in a bit and all the whales were in the water, albeit in the shallows. Sadly, it was clear that some of them had already passed away, but out of 49 whales in total, only 9 were lost on that first day.

They were pilot whales, so not the biggest, but still pretty large, magnificent animals. It was a half hour walk down the beach to get to them, then I put on my wetsuit, my Project Jonah hi-vis vest and waded out into the sea. Our task was to keep the whales calm and to gently guide them all together back into their pod, while we waited for high tide.

I had a whale all to myself. It is true that you bond with the whale. It was incredible to be up so close, although obviously very sad to see all those whales in distress. They are so solid and strong, and you had to be really careful of the tails which can do you a lot of damage if you get in the way when they thrash.

At high tide, we pointed our whales out to sea and tried to encourage them to head out to the open ocean. My whale was out in front, and was doing so well, but when I got out of my depth I had to turn back and although I had hoped she would continue swimming and guide the others out, sadly she just stayed there where I had left her. At dusk, we were instructed to head back to the beach. We hoped and hoped that the whales would swim out, and a couple of boats went back and forth between the whales and the shore to encourage them out to sea, but to no avail. By the following morning, they had all stranded again.

I wasn't able to stay on until Tuesday, but happily the volunteers who did stay on were able to refloat the whales successfully on Tuesday, and they rescued 28 in total.

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