Whale rescue attempt 'sad' and 'frustrating'

HAYLEY GALE AND NAOMI ARNOLD
Last updated 12:30 05/02/2011
 Some of the 82 whales stranded at Puponga, near Farewell Spit, Golden Bay.
HAYLEY GALE/Nelson Mail
STUCK: Some of the 82 whales stranded at Puponga, near Farewell Spit, Golden Bay.

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An attempt to rescue 15 pilot whales that re-stranded in the sand off Tomatea Point, Pakawau in Western Golden Bay this morning was to take place before today's high tide at midday.

Fourteen of the pod of 82 whales that stranded off Puponga Point at the base of Farewell Spit yesterday afternoon have died, and the rest freed themselves when the tide came in during the night, said a Department of Conservation spokesman. Fifteen whales restranded today.

Yesterday, around 100 volunteers and DOC staff stayed with the stranded whales until nightfall. Golden Bay DOC biodiversity manager Hans Stoffregen said four whales were successfully refloated in the afternoon.

A small team of DOC staff stayed at Puponga overnight and by first light all the surviving whales had gone.

Farewell Spit is a relatively common place for whale strandings. In December 2005 a massive rescue effort refloated more than 100 pilot whales stranded on the same beach.

DOC ranger Simon Walls, who has attended "every whale stranding in Golden Bay for the past 25 years", co-ordinated a group of volunteers yesterday.

He said their efforts to keep the whales hydrated and comfortable were "wonderful".

"The volunteers are totally committed – we couldn't do it without them," he said.

Tourists from all over the world joined local people to help the whales, stranded in two groups about half a kilometre offshore.

Ian Wellby, from Britain and his son Alex,12, spent four hours helping, covering the whales with sheets and constantly pouring water over them. It was the first time they'd seen whales so close.

"It's very, very sad to see but it's amazing how many people have turned up to such a remote, desolate spot," Mr Wellby said.

Swiss tourist Regula Keller and about 10 other people went into the water and tried to push them back out to sea.

"The whole group was coming in and we tried to slap the water to get them back out. The water was chest height. The whales kept coming back, but they were all stranded.

"It was really frustrating. It's really sad," Mrs Keller said.

She said some people were wading in just to take pictures, which was "really annoying".

"Lots of people felt helpless as the whales were stranded. The whales tried to get themselves free and scratched their skin up quite badly. We could hear them calling as they lay there on the beach."

Pakawau resident Rachel Harvey joined her sister, DOC ranger Amanda Harvey, in measuring the stranded whales and trying to keep them cool. "It's really sad hearing their calls," she said.

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DOC biodiversity ranger Steve Deverell was among a group who refloated four of the stranded whales, including a mother and calf. "There was some communication between the mother and calf and that was encouraging to see," he said.

Volunteers have been asked to remain on standby. The public can phone the Golden Bay DOC office on 5258026 if they see any more stranded whales.

- The Nelson Mail

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