Pilot Whale Stranding in New Zealand


//This post refers to events from February 2015 when we were land traveling in New Zealand, having left SV Estrellita in a keel pit in Fiji. I had originally written this for a non-blogging purpose, never did anything with it, and so am posting it here.//

More than 150 pilot whales were stranded on the beach and the call was going out for volunteers. Like many cruisers, we were using the South Pacific cyclone season as a chance to tramp and car camp around New Zealand. While the pilot whales were struggling on the hard, we were snug in our sleeping bags at a hippy rock climbers campground at the North end of the South Island of New Zealand, about 45 minutes away.

After an unusually noisy early morning in camp, we unzipped our tent to find the climbers campground was deserted -- an incredibly rare event at that hour. After asking around we found out about the stranding which had occurred the previous evening. When we arrived at the beach, we were happy to see a large crowd of volunteers.

Believing that there was no need for additional help, we went to the beach just to observe. Several tide cycles after the stranding, there were still about 60 whales on the beach and quite a few were already dead. A baby whale and its mother were still alive. The mother was struggling under her own beached weight while the baby was splashing in a trench dug around its body.

We came upon a team of people caring for a whale they had named Emily. The volunteers were cold, wet, exhausted and in need of relief. They gave us instructions on how to care for Emily and we spent the next several hours carrying buckets of cold water to cool her overheated core, keeping her upright on her belly to avoid crushing her pectoral fins, and talking to her to calm her breathing and to keep her from panicking.

Emily was severely blistered from the sun. She kept her eyes tightly shut against the drying air and blew fiercely in intervals out of her blowhole. One of her pectoral fins had lost a deep slice of skin from her struggles before she was rolled onto her stomach by volunteers. She had been draped in an old white sheet to protect her skin from further sun damage and to hold the cooling water against her.

I will never forget my turn at her head, crouched down in the wet sand at her side near her eye, talking soothingly to her. She had rolled slightly and we were trying to right her. We had sandbags to keep her propped up and in good position for the upcoming high tide but sometimes the sand would give, or she would struggle and start sliding to one side. While we were righting her, trying our best to avoid her badly blistered skin, her breathing had become more jerky, with the breaths coming closer and closer together. You could feel her pain and fear. As I began talking soothingly to her, she gradually slowed her breathing and began taking full, even breaths. I had calmed her and that realization connected me to her in a way that I will remember forever.

As the tide approached, surging in quickly on the long flat beach, the volunteers without wetsuits scurried back across the muddy tidal flats to higher ground. At this point, the difficult task of keeping the whales calm and in place until they had enough water to swim safely began. The Department of Conservation used special floats to first bring out a whale that they believed was a pod leader in hopes that the lead pilot whale swimming offshore would encourage the others.

New Zealand's Golden Bay has a long history of whale beachings. Although scientists are still uncertain as to the exact cause, the preferred explanation is that the long sloping beach combined with a large tidal range confuses the echolocation of the whales who cannot get a solid radar return on the low angle slope. The pilot whales come in, the ebbing tide rushes out and they become stranded. With up to 8 kilometers of tidal flats at Farewell Spit, even if stranded whales refloat on the next high tide, the long shallow beach causes the whales to have difficulty finding their way to deeper water and they often find themselves stranded again.

At sunset, when all of the surviving whales were floating just off the sand, the wetsuit volunteers grasped each others' cold, salty hands and formed a human chain to direct the whales away from the shallows and into deeper water.

Emily swam away. The Department of Conservation experts assured us that whales can recover from such grievous injuries to their skin. I hope so. The next time we are on passage in the South Pacific, sailing between island nations, and we are surrounded by pilot whales, as has occurred several times in the past, I am going to toast Emily and hope she and the rest of her pod always stay in deep water.


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