Tre and I were involved in an attempt over Valentines Day weekend, February 2015, to save almost 200 pilot whales stranded on Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, New Zealand, and in retelling our story and what we learned I doubt I can keep my personal anguish from showing through. Forgive me.
I do not know why whales strand at Farewell Spit in Golden Bay. Staff at the Department of Conservation could shed no light on it. Project Jonah’s website has these ideas on the causes of strandings.
The Spit is one of the last pieces of land whales pass on their way north from summers spent feeding around New Zealand. It’s shallow, particularly so to the west, where most strandings occur.
The whales’ sonar and communication simply does not warn them to turn around. They forge on with tragic consequences.
Anyone who has assisted in keeping alive and/or re-floating whales after a stranding will understand how emotional it is to work beside these helpless mammals. So magnificent and agile in the water, on the sand they are helpless and often in pain.
Pain comes from fragile skin that tears as the whale thrashes around to escape; pain comes from hand-size blisters from sunburn; pain comes from the effect of gravity on a huge body that is usually buoyed by salt water.
Sunburn for whales is excruciating
Above: The rough area along this whale’s side is caused by palm-size blisters.
Whale skin is seldom exposed to the sun the way it is for long periods during a stranding.
The skin of these whales is dark and absorbs the heat too
Finding a stranding early and applying first aid to the whale’s skin is imperative. The stranding of Friday 13th was not discovered until after the whales had been stranded for several hours on an extremely hot day.
The side exposed to the sun suffers the greatest damage, they have no way of protecting themselves – they cannot rollover, so they suffer. What we can do is cover them with smooth sheets and keep them wet. Avoid touching the blisters in case you tear them.
Above: Keeping whales cool is paramount in successfully returning them to the sea.
Smooth sheets, bed covers and table cloths are ideal – they have to be large to cover mammals of this size
I was particularly shocked at how thin their skin is when I first saw it hanging off some whales like torn wrapping paper – underneath was bloody blubber. Blubber bleeds, just like our flesh bleeds when our skin is torn away. Can you imagine the pain?
How many people to save a whale?
The Department of Conservation (DOC) and Project Jonah (Whale Rescue) estimate that there should be at least three people per whale at every stranding. Friday’s stranding, because it was discovered late, and because it was about seven kilometres up the Spit, meant everyone who attended had to be transported by special vehicles.
Only about 80 people made it to re-float about 70 of the 180 whales on the evening tide. We were spread thinly in the water. And, although many of us assisted several whales out into deeper water many were left behind, or had died earlier in the day without the assistance they needed. It was heart-breaking to stand in the receding tide and see body after body lying dead – bodies of mammals who had been part of a breathing, sociable pod only 12 hours earlier.
At the re-stranding of the 70 survivors, about 500 people turned up. They arrived early, the day was overcast and the rescue effort was finely tuned. The consequence was that 67 live whales were returned to the sea and have not been seen since. Yeehah!
Taking care of yourself
Above: When 500 people turned up on Valentine’s Day, every whale could receive attention. Human carers could be relieved when they got tired and experts were able to work with less stressed whales to re-float them
People need to take breaks, to eat and reflect on what is happening around them. When you’re working with one whale, that whale becomes your total focus. You also need to aware of your own safety. Whales can thresh their tails around and can and do knock people out. That’s also why you’re told not to step over a whale or get between two whales.
The toll can be high on your emotions. If whales have already died or are badly injured, be prepared to feel similar emotions to what you might feel at a tragic death or bad accident. You want to make everyone better. You want to roll back the tide/time, you worry your head with ‘what ifs’ and ‘why didn’t they’ speculation. Just remember that without your support more whales could have died. You’re a legend just by being brave enough to get in there to try.
When you first arrive on the beach with a large stranding, you don’t know where to start. Often the bodies are clumped together and there is no way you’re going to be able to separate one out from the group in order to give them whale first aid. You have to look for whales who are breathing and who are not threshing about (often an indication they’re about to die). If you arrive after trained help listen to their advice on which whale to work with and how to do it.
You have to work with the most likely to survive. While it may seem inhumane not to you may be expending wasted energy to save a calf, if the calf’s mother has died. Whale calves, like human babies survive on mother’s milk. Work to save them both or move on to another whale who is in a better position to survive. A grim choice you must make if there are few of you around.
Connecting with ‘your’ whale
If you spend eight or more hours working to keep a whale alive accept that you’re going to feel a huge bond with that mammal. When it’s returned to the ocean you will feel a deep loss. Project Jonah people actually advise you to make a connection – a bond with the whale – to keep them alive.
Stranded whales often close their eyes (who would blame them when they’re in that much pain?), but talking to them and encouraging them to look at you increases their chances of survival. Tre spent a couple of hours kneeling in the mud, talking about our ‘calves’ and family connections and for a long part of that time the whale looked at her.
Above: Tre talks to ‘her’ whale. The whale’s eye is closed in this picture, but she opened it many times and looked directly at Tre. Could you ever forget such connection?
When you are attempting to re-float a whale you expend a lot of energy. On the beach they are more comfortable upright with their dorsal fin pointing to the sky; when you’re helping to move them forward in shallow water it’s easier to do so with them on their side. On Friday, I and the woman I was working with had to stop every few seconds to wait for the next tidal surge to lift the weight of the whale and then push forward again until the whale was in deep enough water.
When on its side the whale still needs to breath and you have to remember to stop and let them lift their head a little. Once the whale is swimming the optimum action is for you and your group to keep guiding it to deeper water, but if there’s only one or two of you, remember that the whale is an independent being and may resist all attempts by you to get it to comply, turning instead to the shore. Respect that. Who knows what the whale is searching for? Let it make its choices and accept you have done your best.
A few things we learned
Whales on sand may have stranded with their flippers at uncomfortable angles. Dig trenches and fill them with water so that they can flex their flippers down to a more comfortable angle.
Above: The water-filled trench allows the whale to rest her flippers at a natural angle.
- The main areas to keep wet and cool are: dorsal fin (don’t touch it if you can avoid it), flippers and tail flukes.
- Avoid moving around the whale suddenly but be prepared to get out of the way if it starts struggling.
- Talk calmly and quietly. Tre noticed that even though people were constantly fetching buckets of clean sea water they kept the noise level low.
- From time to time bathe the whale’s eyes with clean seawater to stop them getting irritated by sand.
- Wear only gear you’re prepared to get wet in. During Friday’s re-float we personally were unprepared for what was needed. Tre had to discard her padded jacket – it weighed her down, whereas my windbreaker turned out to be great, in and out of the water.
- Wet suits are ideal for whale re-floating and Project Jonah and DOC manage re-floats mainly with people in wet suits. On the Friday they didn’t have enough volunteers to be choosey.
Stranded dead whales are not a novelty. They are equivalent to a drowned person – a mammal out of its natural environment. Yet there is an attraction to see and marvel at the hugeness of these mammals, and we couldn’t help but go back to the scene on Sunday to be sure that the remaining dead whales were not ‘Tre’s whale’.
As we drove home we were struck by how unseemly it felt to be glad that the dead whales weren’t ‘our whale’, and somewhere, out in the ocean she was swimming and healing. We decided it must be similar to the relief people feel that their loved ones have survived a terrible tragedy where others have died. That’s the depth of the emotional attachment you feel when you participant in a whale rescue.
Heather Sylvawood with photos by Tre Sylvawood.