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PROJECT JONAH: Diary of a stranding

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It all starts in a pub. In fact, it starts on the walk home from a pub at around 9:30pm on a thursday night. 9 February 2017, to be exact.

“Daren. It’s Mike Ogle from the Department of Conservation [DoC]. It looks like we’ve got around 180 whales stranding at Farewell Spit.”

My heart leaps. These are the words I hope never to hear but spend my life preparing for. Why? Because, as the General Manager of Project Jonah, my job is to work with DoC, our trained medics and members of the public to help whales survive a stranding. 180 is a lot of whales. And they are stranded at one of the most remote places in New Zealand.

I get on the phone to our senior medics. I’m really lucky to have a team of experienced volunteers who will drop everything to go to a stranding. In a few hours, hundreds of people and a whole lot of whales are going to be relying on that experience.

We alert our trained volunteer marine mammal medics in the region, putting them on standby to respond. Our training is essentially ‘whale first aid’ and human health and safety, and with more than 3,500 trained volunteers throughout New Zealand, there are usually medics close to any event.

Friday 10 February: – first discovery

It's 6am and I’m in Motueka picking up a senior medic and the whale rescue trailer we keep there. The trailer holds our stranding essentials – specialist equipment along with the basics: buckets, spades and sheets. We’ve got several trailers placed around the country, but strandings at Farewell Spit are common occurrences, so we keep one permanently at Motueka.

7:30am:

We arrive at Triangle Flat, the entry to Farewell Spit, where the base of operations will be. I’m relieved to see a team of several DoC rangers already there and about 20 members of the public. DoC advises that there are 418 long-finned pilot whales stranded on the beach. 200 are estimated to be dead and they are about four kilometres up the beach. Those are staggering numbers. This could be one of the largest strandings in New Zealand’s history. Certainly the biggest I’ve been involved in. at this point I am focusing on two things:

1. FIGURING OUT THE TIDES SO WE KNOW WHEN A RE-FLOAT IS POSSIBLE

2. BRIEFING VOLUNTEERS SO THEY CAN START HELPING

Our response to a mass stranding (any stranding involving more than three whales) is dictated by the tide cycle. At Farewell Spit whales typically come in on a rising tide and strand close to the high tide line as the tide recedes.

And the tides go out a long way here: up to seven kilometres in some places. There is no returning them to the sea until the next high tide, when they’ve regained buoyancy and can swim off. I learn that high tide is at 10:30am. It’s information that I share in my first briefing to the 20 volunteers already there. I’m sticking to the essentials so we can get them out to the whales as quickly as possible. It’s the distilled wisdom of 40 years of Project Jonah experience:

‘Today you’ll be doing whale first aid. Remember the three Cs – keep them Cool, Comfortable and Calm.

Cool: These whales have black skin and a thick layer of blubber. By pouring water over them, you wick the excess heat away from them. We can also put light coloured sheets over the whales and pour water over these to help with cooling and don't pour water down the blowhole.”

Comfortable: Once we’ve got enough people, you’ll be working in a team to get the whales upright. We want them on their bellies so their blow holes are above the water when the tide comes in, to reduce the chances of drowning, stress or exhaustion.

Calm: The whales have the best chance of surviving if they stay calm. That means you need to be calm. Keep your voice down and pour water over them gently. You can’t look after the whales if you don’t look after yourselves. So keep safe. STAY AWAY FROM THE TAIL! It’s one of the biggest muscles in the animal kingdom and can knock you over easily, injuring or even killing you. Wear sunblock, put on your wetsuit and take food and water.”

Over the course of the day, I give this briefing to around 700 people.

9:50am: First reports that the incoming tide is deep enough for some of the smaller whales in the pod to swim.

10:30am: Four of our senior medics arrive from Auckland.

They head straight out to the whales to lead the re-float. They all have experience in using a pontoon (a trampoline like mat suspended between two inflatable outriggers).

This equipment was designed in the 1980s to re-float single whales, and we’ve had a lot of success placing a dominant or magnet whale into a pontoon and taking it out to deeper water to encourage the rest of the pod to follow. However, today there isn’t enough time or water depth to do this.

12:15pm: The pod is re-stranding.

1:30pm: The pod has stranded in the same spot as before.

While we expect a re-stranding at Farewell Spit, it’s still demoralising for us and the volunteers.  But it is precisely at this moment that we see humans at their best, their most compassionate and their fiercest in their commitment to help.

Although not the biggest whales, long-finned pilot whales can grow up to six metres long and weigh more than three tonnes. They dwarf us with their size. But when they are on the beach it is obvious that they are wild animals out of their natural element, and it is evident that they are sentient and aware of us.

Plenty of people have asked why we re-float them, why we don’t just leave them to die on the beach. It’s “Darwinism”, it’s “survival of the fittest”, it’s them “evolving to be land based again”. We’ve heard it all, and it’s clear that none of these people has ever been to a stranding, as anyone with an ounce of empathy simply couldn’t leave them.

This is why hundreds of volunteers spend the next seven hours providing first aid to the whales: doing the heavy work of getting the whales upright, digging holes to gather water from, and pouring bucket after bucket of water over them. It’s why they give their whales names and spend time talking to them and building bonds with them.

And it’s also this that makes leaving the beach at the end of the day so hard for people. We can’t work around the whales at night because it’s too dangerous in such a remote location. There are many hazards, not least being the whales’ tails, a swiftly incoming tide, stingrays and sharks and the difficulty of working in the dark.

"PLENTY OF PEOPLE HAVE ASKED WHY WE REFLOAT THEM, WHY DON’T WE JUST LEAVE THEM TO DIE ON THE BEACH? WE’VE HEARD IT ALL, AND IT’S CLEAR NONE OF THESE PEOPLE HAVE EVER BEEN TO A STRANDING, AS ANYONE WITH AN OUNCE OF EMPATHY SIMPLY COULDN’T LEAVE THEM."

7.30pm:

As the tide starts to return and evening draws in, we start clearing the beach. We remove the equipment and then the people, most of whom leave reluctantly. Have we done enough? Will they re-float themselves and swim off? These are questions that only the morning can answer.

As we leave the beach we pass the bodies of the dead whales. Each has a sprig of kawakawa on their pectoral fin.

A kuia from Te Ātiawa, the local iwi, has said a karakia for every single whale. It feels important and a fitting way to farewell them.

Saturday 11th: – going the distance

5:30am: It’s an early start.

There has been a low tide overnight so we need to be back at Farewell Spit ready to hear from DoC whether more whales have stranded.

6:45am: DoC confirms there are 120 whales stranded in roughly the same place as yesterday.

6:50am: I brief around 30 Project Jonah marine mammal medics, of whom some have travelled overnight to get here.

7:00am: I brief a really large crowd of the public. High tide is 11.30am.

While the briefing covers many of the same points as yesterday, we have to ensure that the safety messages are repeated. Never assume that these people know what to do; that’s when accidents happen. But one thing is different from yesterday – stingrays and sharks are in the shallows.

They are being attracted to the dead whales on the beach.

9:30am: The tide is high enough for us to start the refloat

Once the whales are buoyant we bring them all together to a central point. That’s easier said than done. The whales are socialising and heading in all sorts of directions. The volunteers are working hard to keep them from heading back in towards shore.

11:30am: All of the whales are swimming and the volunteers form a human chain, holding hands parallel to the shore.

The whales’ echolocation identifies the human chain as an obstacle, so that they don’t re-strand. By midday there are more than 150 people in the human chain, making it at least a kilometre long. It’s quite a sight. We get news from spotter boats out in the bay that there is a pod of another 200-300 whales heading directly towards us. This is totally unexpected and we’re concerned that if they come in too close they’ll also strand. We immediately send out the remaining volunteers in wetsuits to join the human chain. There’s a terrifying moment when we see a wall of whales bearing down on us. Plenty of people genuinely wonder if they’ll stop or keep swimming straight into us.

They do stop. And there’s a sublime moment when they gather up the newly re floated whales and swim out to deeper water. We are absolutely elated. Many people have been in the human chain, in deep water, for hours. As they watch the whales swim away they know it was worth it.

DoC monitors the pod from boats in the bay. The news continues to be promising, but we won’t know until the tide starts going out.

5:00pm: We get news that a pod of about 80 whales has stranded right off Triangle Flat where we are based.

We send a group of volunteers to respond. This is quicklyfollowed by the news that there is a group stranded fivekilometres further along the coast at Pūponga. A group ofvolunteers drives around the coast to respond to them.

Within an hour 240 whales have stranded. It’s horrific. Our saving grace is that they have stranded at very near low tide, so won’t be out of the water for long.

6:00pm: The tide starts coming in.

With such a large number, it’s been difficult to get them all upright in time.

7:00pm: Everyone not in a wetsuit is asked to leave the water.

They may subsequently feel relieved about that, as we start spotting stingrays swimming amongst the whales.

8:00pm: We start to withdraw all volunteers from the water.

It’s a long walk back to the beach. Some whales are already free-swimming. Will we see them tomorrow? It has been a brutal day, filled with moments of elation, horror and sadness. Can we do it all again tomorrow if we need to?

Sunday 12th: – the end in sight

6am. As we drive to Triangle Flat we pass a handful of whales on the beach near the side of the road. It doesn’t bode well.

7:00am: DoC confirms that there are no new whales stranded on Farewell Spit.

We work with them to ensure that the area to the east around the coast is also clear. We’re relieved that only the handful we saw, 17 whales, have been found stranded. We brief a small number of volunteers with wetsuits and cars to respond. We ask the rest of the volunteers to stay at the stranding site if they can. Many do. We provide briefings every hour or so, even if they are to tell the volunteers there is no new news. One of our medics offers to teach anyone who is interested a ‘waiata tō tautoko’, the ‘karakia for the dead whales’. This is a song to amplify the prayer for the dead. She composes it there and then, writes it on a sheet, and within 15 minutes has around 50 people singing and harmonising to it.

Another group of volunteers has pooled all their money so they can buy and cook warm food for volunteers. They didn’t have wetsuits and wanted to be useful. It’s an extraordinary and simple act of generosity.

5:00pm: We are finally able to call the stranding over.

I will stick around for another day, in case they do re-strand. But as the volunteers leave and we pack up our gear, I reflect on how a stranding brings out the best in people. It is a privilege to be part of this extraordinary event.

Project Jonah is a small charity that employs just two people and is funded by donations. If you’ve been moved by our story and would like to support us, please go to our website at: www.projectjonah.org.nz