It is a summer thing here in Golden Bay. The inevitable stranding of a large number of pilot whales somewhere out on Farewell Spit. It is not every year, but it is a rare good year when we dont have a stranding of some size. Many pods of whales migrate through Cook strait each summer. This stranding over the last couple of days had initially 200 whales beached in the shallow surf. This morning the news is not all bad. 6O whales out there in the bay somewhere, hopefully back on their migration. It is a mystery why the whales beach here with many theories. It has always happened and mostly is due to the natural whale trap shape of Golden Bay. The slowly shallowing mudflats on the inside of Farewell Spit give little or no sonar barrier for the whales and for some reason they think there is a way through to the Tasman Sea. It could be predator attacks by Orca or other bigger fish, herding the whales in along a deep trench into the bay where it shallows out. It is for the most part unstoppable.
Hearing the coverage in the media takes me back to the large whale stranding in the early 1990's. I was part of the volunteer army that assembles to try and save the whales. It is quite a disturbing scene , with so many of these Pilot whales in distress, dying, calling out for their young. All you can do is try, roll them upright ,keep them covered and wet, and wait for the tide to slowly come in. The photo shows us waiting as the tide comes to the rescue. My memories are distant but I remember the rain, a benefit for the whales keeping them cool. The stranding , the largest recorded at that time , started with a juvenile , then its mother and then the 220 strong pod. We struggled in the conditions and when we refloated the whales , they just came back in 20 km's to the north. So we worked again , another 6 or 8 hours of effort waiting for the next tide. On dusk we floated them again. But again they stranded , this time too weak to re-float , DOC decided to euthenase. My friend Aaron and I were some of the last rescuers on site as the rangers arrived with their shotguns. The moment was captured by a Nelson photographer, whose beautiful haunting photo's of Aaron emotional as we farewelled the whales we had fought so hard for the last 48 hours, have become iconic of Farewell Spit and the repeated annual efforts to save these beautiful sea mammals. It was an reflective ride down the spit on the back of a truck that day.
On other occasions we were successful, re-floating and herding the pod out to sea with small boats. An amazing sight to see these whales diving , small juveniles in perfect dive unison with their huge mothers.
So in amongst all the hardship of trying to get the whales back out to sea it also creates an opportunity for such a real close encounter that is so out of the ordinary. It brings out a commitment of strangers working together in trying conditions so try in some small way to assist another species to survive. Hopefully raising an awareness of our earths many habitats. So well done to the present bunch of volunteers out on Farewell spit today working to Save the Whales.