27 December 2009
A beautiful day after Boxing Day dawned over the Coromandel Peninsula, my partner and I had arrived the day before to spend time with family and have some fun in the sun. Little did we know that while we slept that night, more than 60 pilot whales lay helpless and stranded on a beach in Colville Bay.
The first we heard about it was via text – a stranding alert sent out by Project Jonah. We got our gear together as quickly as possible and hit the road. When we arrived a huge crowd had already formed – at least 400 to 500 people working together to keep the whales wet and calm. There were several families and tourists who had been picnicking in the bay and decided to help; local campers were also out in force. I think one French tourist summed it up when he said, “well we were passing by and saw what was happening and had to stop and lend a hand”; this sentiment was echoed by everyone I met that day.
There were lots of mothers and calves; some so small they couldn’t have been more than a few days old. We later found out that a couple actually gave birth during the stranding. Amazingly these animals survived and swam away at the end of the day.
It’s during times or strife, stress and turmoil that you get to see the best of people. Strandings certainly seem to bring that to the fore. I saw people from every strata of society, young, old rough, and refined; they were all committed to a common cause – helping each other save the lives of these beautiful creatures we are so lucky to have visit our waters. People were bumped and jostled and sprayed and even knocked over by one another but every single time I saw this happen people would say things like “Nah, nah mate it’s all good just keep saving the whales!”, or “No problems, keep doing what you’re doing!”. To be honest it made me proud to be a Kiwi and a part of an organization like Project Jonah.
By 1:30pm the tide had started to race in. As the water rose so did the spirits of the volunteers and the whales as well; they could obviously sense the water coming in and were itching to be on their way. Once the whales were floating we started rocking them gently from side to side to help the fluids in their heads re-settle and return their lost sense of balance. Some of the younger ones even tried to make a run for it but we needed to keep them all together and release them at the same time to reduce the risk of them re-stranding.
Eventually we lined them all up and walked them out as far as we could. We released them and formed a line in the water to block them… just in case the unthinkable happened and they bolted back towards the beach.
There were lots of smiles, cheers and very tired people by the end of the day. I have a huge amount of respect for those who pitched up to help on the day, and for DOC and Project Jonah who are always on call to help these animals need our help.