A dozen whales refloated, three die

By Paul Harper with NZ Herald staff, Isaac Davison

Volunteer Kate Malcolm from Tutukaka comforts a whale moved to a stream yesterday. Photo / Richard Robinson.
Volunteer Kate Malcolm from Tutukaka comforts a whale moved to a stream yesterday. Photo / Richard Robinson.

More than half of the 24 whales being refloated in the Far North this evening have made it into the water, says the Department of Conservation, but three have died.

The whales, which stranded on Spirits Bay on Wednesday, are being unloaded into the water at Rarawa Beach using lifting equipment and diggers.

DOC says most of the whales have coped with the journey, but two died en route and another at the beach.

DOC incident controller Jonathan Maxwell said the decision to transport the whales was a difficult one, but it was the only realistic option available to give the whales any chance of survival.

"Whales are designed to live in water, so the pressure on their internal organs from lying on a hard surface, combined with the stress of the situation, is very hard on them," said Mr Maxwell.

"Given the situation, and the incredible interest and support the whales have received from the public across the country, to not even attempt to save them would have been extremely difficult for all concerned," he said.

Once all the whales are in the water, they will be released together this evening. Pontoons will be used to take the larger ones out to sea, and then boats will herd the whales out.

Largest whale transport ever attempted

Anton Van Helden, whale expert from Te Papa described the move as "the largest transportation of whales to be attempted yet".

"As far as I'm aware, this has not been tried before to this scale. It's a huge undertaking and definitely contains risks for the whales, but is basically their only chance."

Although all 24 of the whales made it through the night, one large one was struggling a bit, with rescuers having to hold him upright to prevent him rolling over.

DOC Incident controller Jonathon Maxwell said safety considerations would be paramount.

"This is a complex operation at each stage but particularly once we start moving the whales back in to the water. The combination of factors we have at this stranding is a bit unusual too, so we need to be extra careful in how we plan and execute the rescue effort."

DOC senior conservations officer for Northland, Sioux Campbell, was confident the transportation and refloating of the whales would be successful.

"We've done other transports by truck before, not just in Northland but around the country.

"This is maybe the most whales we've moved by truck and it is the longest journey.

"If they latest this long we're hopeful they will last the journey as well."

Survivors in good condition

Whale researcher Karen Stockin was on site yesterday and said the survivors were in very good condition, "much better than the whales which stranded last month at Karikari. These whales had obviously recently eaten and appear strong," she said.

Ms Campbell said it was difficult to tell how many whales had died since the stranding on Wednesday, but understood it was least 30 to 40.

"We were never totally aware how many there were stranded. We know there were a lot in the shallows," she said. "There are not that many on the beach."

The Department of Conservation is grateful for the help it is receiving from volunteers and especially the Te Hapua community, Mr Maxwell said.

"Food, shelter and on the ground assistance have all been willingly offered and there's a great spirit of co-operation. Everyone is looking forward to a good outcome today."

DOC thanks tireless volunteers

Around 80 DOC staff and 120 volunteers, including Project Jonah and Far North Whale Rescue, have been involved in operation.

Volunteer Wendy Turner had not rested since arriving on Wednesday evening. She spent the night in the surf, trying to prevent the whales rolling and beaching.

"It was full on when we arrived. But then there was just a tranquil, quiet night spent in the water, talking to the whales, calming them down."

After the drama of Wednesday night, volunteers worked yesterday to keep the whales wet, and dig them out of the soft sand so they could be moved.

Some volunteers became tearful as the first whale was lifted from the sand.

"So many have died already, it fills me with anguish," said one woman. "But there is some relief in saving these ones."

Conditions 'horrendous'

Orca Research Trust founder Ingrid Visser said the conditions for the stranding were horrendous.

"It's a logistical nightmare. They've stranded in a very remote spot, in terrible weather. So few people have equipment here, or wetsuits," she said.

"There were animals alive in the surf in the night, and we just couldn't get to them. It's tragic."

Spirits Bay was a rugged, flat beach at the end of a 15km gravel road. Transporting the whales would cause them considerable distress, Dr Visser said. "But at least, for now, they are off the beach, and not as stressed."

A makeshift community sprang up at the Spirits Bay campground as teachers, students, engineers, families, and local iwi dropped everything to help rescue the animals.

Shayni Hawkins and Tamra Gibson had left their dive shop in Tutukaka to help with the stranding.

"We've had about an hour's sleep," said Shayni. "But the whales can't get themselves off the beach. So we're here for the long haul."

- NZ Herald

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