Volunteers bond with whales at Farwell Spit mass whale stranding

Golden Bay resident Bridie Griffiths holds a stranded whale.
Nina Hindmarsh

Golden Bay resident Bridie Griffiths holds a stranded whale.

Nina Hindmarsh was amongst the first people to arrive at the mass stranding of pilot whales at Farewell Spit. It was an overwhelming and emotional sight.

 In the early morning only a handful of volunteers were at the devastating scene where one of New Zealand's largest recorded mass whale strandings occurred.

There was a sombre sense of urgency in the air. Volunteers in wetsuits ran down the two kilometre stretch of beach to where the hundreds of whales lay dead and dying.

Volunteers work on stranded whales at Farewell Spit.
Martin De Ruyter

Volunteers work on stranded whales at Farewell Spit.

The surviving whale's glistening black bodies lay half in the ocean, thrashing violently. Giant corpses dotted the shoreline right down the spit, their lifeless round eyes staring and mouths gaping.

"I've never seen anything like this," volunteer Petra Dubois said with tears in her eyes.

"It's just so unbelievably sad to see all these bodies; so many lives gone and so many that might not survive. Just so devastating, I really don't know what to say."

Hundreds of volunteers turned out to help at a mass whale stranding in Golden Bay.
MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ

Hundreds of volunteers turned out to help at a mass whale stranding in Golden Bay.

Another volunteer Catherine Trundle wondered if the whales were re-stranding because they were trying to find their families, babies and mothers.

About 200 metres out into the sea, a woman cupped water in her hands and poured it over a lone whale as she sung a sorrowful song in an attempt to comfort to the dying creature.

Some people bonded with particular whales, and cried as they stroked and held the giant bodies.

A volunteer works with a stranded pilot whale at Farewell Spit.
Nina Hindmarsh

A volunteer works with a stranded pilot whale at Farewell Spit.

A baby whale moved off the sand and swam, and a group of people led it into deeper water.

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The whales arrived in the bay during the night and 70 per cent were dead by the morning.

Strandings are complex events and there are many reasons why whales may strand.

Whales that strand in groups are usually deep water species with highly evolved social structures.

Whatever the reason for the initial stranding, the strong social bonds of these animals can draw the rest of the pod in.

By lunchtime, hundreds of volunteers had waded waist-deep in cold seawater as they attempted to push the whales back out to sea.

"They just don't seem to want to move," one DOC worker said.

"We don't know why, but they are just staying put. We just hope we can get them moving, because the tide's going out now."

DOC worker Amanda Harvey was in the water warning people to step back from a large pilot whale at least four metres long. Thrashing it's powerful tail, volunteers recoilled and watched.

"At the moment, we're running out of tide," Harvey said.

"But we're just trying to shift them out into deeper water and split up the pod, it's not what we want to do, but it's the only thing we can right now."

Volunteers will hang around until night falls, covering the whales in wet towels and pouring buckets of salt water over the thick dark skin, before regrouping tomorrow.

It could be several days until the survivors are out in deep water.

The bodies of those that have died will likely be dragged down the spit to rot silently, the bones a reminder of a mysterious tragedy.

 - Stuff

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