Rhys completed his Marine Mammal Medic training in Auckland at the end of September 2020. Three weeks later he received at text alert asking him to respond to a mass pilot whale stranding in Coromandel. His thoughts about the day and how his training helped are below.
Saturday 17 October, Colville.
There wasn't an obvious meeting point when I first arrived at the beach, things were a bit hectic but eventually I found a gazebo set up which I went to ask where they needed me and advised I was a PJ trained medic with wetsuit. It was a relief to see some other members in their PJ hi viz vests, especially having only have completed the course and being new to strandings. People in charge were giving directions and tasks were being allocated. Due to a number of people not having the right gear, I was sent into the water to help keep the pod of whales that were swimming in shallow water, from stranding. This was quite a walk as the tide was far out and being a very shallow sloping beach, meant the water had long gone.
I only saw the stranded whales in passing. They looked to have plenty of buckets and sheets and there were plenty of people on the beach helping. They also had a pump set up to bring water up the beach (as tide was about 1500m out at low tide).
There were around 30 people with wetsuits in the water, two boats and a person in a kayak providing snacks. Every 45 mins someone would come through and check that everyone was comfortable, warm and fed and encouraged us to go and rest if we needed it.
We formed a horse shoe around the pod to keep them from coming in to help the stranded whales. Some volunteers had held them there from early morning; I arrived at about 1.30pm. I didn't think to have a hat for in the water so one of the Doc workers gave me their cap. I didn't think of the heat loss from being in the water, even on a sunny and warm day (this has now been added to my grab bag).
We were moving in as the tide came in, so no one was in too deep. One of the older and larger whales (it had a lot more scars and scratches) kept trying to break the line and get in to see its pod members. At one point there was a whale that broke through but quickly got turned around by people out behind the horse shoe. We tried gentle splashing to keep the whales within the horse shoe and to avoid having to physically handle them. If they got too close, we then turned them around and guided them back to the other whales. I think the gentle splashing was good as it meant we didn't have to handle them as much.
As the sun got low, it was getting really hard to spot where their tales were when they were swimming. I was very aware of the warnings about their tales but the pod seemed fairly docile, they weren't flicking their tales up or being aggressive.
As the tide came in, we walked backwards with the swimming whales (so the people were in a safe depth). As this was happening, the whales on the beach were being refloated and each whale was walked out by a few people. The horse shoe soon lost its shape as we were simultaneously trying to keep the whales out deep, make sure we were working in safe depths and also having the reintroduction of whales from behind us. It was hard to gauge how long the refloating took but the tide came in pretty quickly towards the end. At around 7pm DOC called everyone in and the whale pod was escorted out with boats. High tide coincided nicely with dusk.
It was great relief having all the locals bringing down warm food and drink throughout the day, especially for those who had travelled or been in the water all day. This included food cooked by a local Buddhist temple - it was awesome to see the community coming together for these animals in need.
It was an amazing experience that I’m glad I could take a part in. If it wasn't for the text message from Project Jonah I would have been completely oblivious to the stranding. Thanks for the opportunity and knowledge to help out in this situation. It was an amazing experience to be a part of.