Trio pitch in on the spit

A team of Project Jonah marine mammal medics from Whale Watch Kaikoura were able to put their training to use for the first time last weekend, working with stranded pilot whales at Farewell Spit.

Whale Watch currently has six Project Jonah medics on its staff and three of those, Roger Williams, Haley Baxter and Shannon Gray, got the callout last Saturday.

The team is part of a nationwide group which receives text messages when the need arises.

They asked the boss if they could go and an hour later they were confirmed and on their way north.

Having only done their training at the start of December, the three were excited at the opportunity to use it, although the sight that met them was confronting with about 50 whales stranded, some of which were already dead.

Arriving at the site close to dark, the trio set to work immediately on the pod which had stranded about 5km up the beach, and at low tide it seemed the whales were an incredibly long way from the sea.

All they could do was make the whales comfortable for the night, keeping them wet and digging channels to allow them to breathe, before setting up camp at the entrance to Farewell Spit.

With high tide at midnight, it was hoped the whales would be able to refloat themselves.

What would happen the next day was uncertain and an even larger pod stranded again the following morning, a few kilometres further up the beach.

The group of volunteers hoped for a successful refloat at high tide, about noon, so when Department of Conservation staff who were heading the project gave the all clear, they were straight on to a bus and off to the site again.

"We spent all day just trying to keep them wet and comfortable," Roger says. "The majority were still alive and breathing quite well."

Keeping a whale upright to prevent it drowning was a feat in itself, each whale requiring six or seven people to roll it. The plan was to help push them out once enough tide had come in, which they never envisaged being so difficult.

"It was way harder than we thought," Haley says.

"They are pretty strong and they just kept wanting to go back towards the beach again."

But by high tide an army of local volunteers had joined the force, making the job a little easier.

They finally got the pod refloated and walked back out of the area.

"We felt pretty positive about it until we got to Nelson and checked the website and found they had restranded."

But the team knew they could not return; work commitments meaning they had to get back home.

They are just pleased they were able to make a difference and help out, and especially pleased they could put their training to good use so quickly.

"Now we've done it we will know what to expect next time.

"For us, going up there was a no-brainer," Roger says.

"We see these whales around our boats out here so to see them dead on the beach was pretty heavy."

For information about how to become a Project Jonah medic, visit projectjonah.

Kaikoura Star