It was just a normal Tuesday evening and I was relaxing after class when I received a text: 'Possible mass stranding at Ohope Harbour, text Yes if you can attend'. I instantly texted back YES. Then the thoughts started rushing in; How would I get there? How many are stranded? Are they whales or dolphins? Are any injured?
I hopped on Facebook to see people from our class (Year 1 Marine Studies at Bay of Plenty Polytechnic) had already started discussing rides, etc. Later that evening we received the next text, '60 whales stranded. Meet at Ohope Wharf at 5am’. I was suddenly determined. I was going to be there to help save them no matter what. The thought of them stranded on land overnight was hard to get my head around and I wanted them to be back in the safety of the water.
I had a ride sorted and my bag was packed; surf wetsuit, dive wetsuit, booties, warm clothes, sunhat, food - everything was sorted. Now for the early morning start. Tossing and turning all night thinking about how hard it must be for the whales to be out of their comfort zone, my alarm finally went off 3:30am. I jumped out of bed and was ready in 10minutes.
We reached Ohope Harbour around 5am to find most of our class and many other past and present students already there. It was amazing to see the amount of support from people who had responded to the call out. So, into our wetsuits and booties we got and the waiting game began.
We were briefed and told that some whales had died overnight, and 22 pilot whales were alive and stranded on a sandbar on the other side of the harbour. We were reminded of the safety rules we had learnt in our training - what to do and what to be careful of. There was only the one boat taking 4 people over at a time until more boats arrived. A few people left on the first trip over and we soon got news that the helicopter flying overhead was going to start taking people across too. All I remember thinking was 'I just want to get there, I don't care how, I want to be there for the whales, comfort them and help save them'.
Somebody shouted at me “there's a space on the boat, are you going?” Without even thinking I chucked my bag at someone and replied “yes!” I hopped on the boat and away we went. I knew it was about to be real, I was about to be up close and personal with a long-finned pilot whale. Thoughts came rushing in again and my eyes teared up at the thought of seeing such a magnificent creature lying helpless on the sand. The boat stopped, I knew I had to get up. I told myself to pull my head in and be there for the whales, I wouldn't be much help to them if I was crying. I hopped off the boat and looked around and saw the whales. I knew they needed help but which one to help first? I was then told to come help with a large female and a calf, which was swimming around in the deeper waters with the female beached close by but further up the sand. We put the female on to a mat and when we went to lift, that was then I realised how heavy a pilot whale really is. We moved her to deeper water and the calf jumped straight on to the mat. I remember my eyes tearing up once again and thinking how stressed they must have been and how thankful I was to have helped reunite what I believe was a mother and her baby after a long night on the sand.
I looked back at the pilot whales on the sand and saw one with no one tending to it and decided that was the next one I was going to help. I was told it was a female and started walking towards her. There were two other whales close by whose tails were close to her face, clearly stressing her out. I sat beside her and saw two massive cookie cutter shark bites with blood still dripping out. I held my hand on her side and wanted to comfort her as if she were human. I wanted her back in the ocean and I didn't care how long it took or what it took to do it.
It was then she started shaking, her tail was quivering and I knew instantly something was wrong and called people over. We realised her pec fin was stuck underneath her and we needed to get it out quickly. We rolled her onto one side, got her fin out and dug a hole for it. Within seconds she relaxed and stopped shaking. While we did this, the whales around her had been moved to deeper water and people came up with a mat as she was next to be moved.
I remember talking to the one I was looking after, telling her 'she was not allowed to come back and has to take the others with her out to sea' and 'as much as I loved her I didn't want to see her again for her own good'. I didn't care if people thought I was nuts, I wanted the best for this whale and her pod so badly, I wanted them back out in the ocean swimming around freely and happily and to have nice long lives and never strand again.
We had been previously told we would be in for the long haul and the whales wouldn't be released until the next high tide at 6pm,. Just then, an announcement was made. Conditions had changed and we would be releasing the whales in 15 minutes time. I was overcome with happiness. 'You'll be home so soon' I remember saying to the big girl beside me.
Another Project Jonah medic came over to help get her ready to turn for the refloat and let them get back home. I didn't want her to see me upset. We turned her and I put my hand on her one last time and let her go. My eyes welled up with tears again and I knew I had done something good for these mammals. I was so happy they were free. We were splashing and making noise so they wouldn't turn back and boats came along to help guide them out. We were told to follow the pod from the sand bank.
Not long after, we were given food and drinks, donated from the local four square. We were relaxing and started walking further down the beach. That's when I saw my first dead pilot whale. I looked further ahead and there were more. My happiness in refloating 22 whales almost disappeared and I was overcome with sadness for the ones who didn't make it. I walked over to the first one and my eyes teared up. All I wanted to do was cry. I couldn't imagine the pain and suffering they must have gone through. I walked over further and there lying next to each other on the sand was a mother and baby, even more tears came and my thoughts went back to reuniting mother and baby earlier that morning. It upset me to think this mother and baby didn't make it. There were 15 in total on the beach, all dead.
It was announced the ones we had saved were all out of the harbour and swimming away from the coastline. This cheered me up. But I didn't want them to re-strand. I knew the chances were high and I was praying for them to go as far away from land as possible.
We were given the all clear the boat rides back over to the main car park began. There were so many different emotions running through our minds and that was obvious in all the different looks on people’s faces. Some happy, some sad, some just looked exhausted. We were debriefed, helped pack up the gear and headed off the boat club for a lunch put on by the locals. The community support was amazing and I am still grateful, for the free showers and beds offered by the local Top 10 Holiday Park.
After lunch we were ready to head back home. I was very tired but there was so much running through my mind. I was grateful and happy to have helped save some of the pod but was so sad and disappointed for the ones who didn't make it. I wished I could have been there in their last moments with them, comforting them and supporting them.
I was awoken the next morning by a very early text 'possible stranding in the Whakatane region. Can you help? Please text back yes if you can. Prepare and be on standby' I text back YES instantly. My bag was packed and I was waiting for more instructions.
Around 8:30am we received another text, quite possibly the most heartbreaking text I have ever received. All 22 Pilot Whales we had helped the day before had re-stranded over night on a different stretch of beach. Some had passed in the night and the rest were euthanised. I knew we had given them the best chance possible but I was so upset they had come back. I thought about the female I had helped and the pod lying there helplessly throughout the night. I thought about who made the decisions and how hard it must have been. I thought about how hard it would have been to euthanise them. And I thought about the fact they would never swim in the sea again.
I knew we had given them their best chance and helped them swim freely one last time. For that I will be ever thankful.
I still think about the stranding on a regular basis. Reflecting back on it now, it has helped me discover where my true passion is. I have a love for marine mammals, mainly whales and dolphins, and want to help educate the public with a focus on strandings and the small everyday actions people can take to help save our oceans. I am now determined to finish my studies and further them, in the hope of being able to make a difference and help improve marine mammals lives. I will be forever grateful for the pilot whales I interacted with and for helping me realise my dreams.