'Swat team' for stranded whales

By Peter De Graaff of the Northland Age

Whales are helped by volunteers at Farewell Spit following a stranding in January. Photo / APN
Whales are helped by volunteers at Farewell Spit following a stranding in January. Photo / APN

A newly formed "swat team" is ready to spring into action the moment a pod of whales strands on the Northland coast.

The launch of Whale Rescue at Opua last weekend brought together many of the region's top marine mammal experts, and the fundraising muscle needed to pay for rescue equipment.

The group was born of two mass strandings in the Far North in 2010, one at Karikari Beach and the other a month later at Spirits Bay. The latter rescue bid involved transporting 24 surviving pilot whales more than 50km on a fleet of trucks, the most ambitious rescue attempted in New Zealand.

It revealed, however, that Northland was not equipped to deal with strandings on such a scale.

A shortage of lifting mats and frames meant delays in moving whales out of the sun, while some of the mats that were available weren't strong enough and ripped under the whales' weight, putting rescuers and the rescued at risk.

In a flash of Kiwi ingenuity someone managed to rustle up some trampoline mats as a substitute.

The impetus for the new group came from discussions at both stranding scenes between Tutukaka orca expert Ingrid Visser, Jo Halliday of Opua, Department of Conservation (DOC) biodiversity manager Patrick Whaley and ranger William Macrae, who died in a helicopter crash at Karikari last year.

Dr Visser described the eight-strong group as a swat team of experienced rescuers, with more than 50 strandings involving 12 species between them.

She offered DOC any help the group could provide, "in memory of Will".

One of Whale Rescue's first projects was to design a pilot whale-specific lifting mat capable of carrying four tonnes. Eight mats, each costing about $1000, were handed over to DOC's Lester Bridson on Saturday, and will be stored in Kaitaia.

DOC already has three lifting frames designed by the late Mr Macrae, who was known as MacGyver for his skill as an inventor.

Meanwhile, Whale Rescue is building up equipment, including two newly donated pontoon systems, which will be based at Opua and Tutukaka.

Ms Halliday said the new group would not replace Project Jonah or Far North Whale Rescue, but would act as a "first response team" with the ability to get to strandings quickly.

Much of DOC's and Project Jonah's gear was stored in Auckland, she said.

Whale Rescue's next project is to raise about $5000 for a disentanglement kit to free whales caught in rope or nets, as happened to humpbacks off Doubtless Bay and the Bay of Islands in 2010.

Currently New Zealand has just one disentanglement kit, based in Kaikoura.

Whale Rescue's technical adviser Steve Whitehouse, who invented rescue techniques and the Marine Mammal Medic course now used in 13 countries, flew from Australia for the launch.

He said when he pioneered whale rescues in the 1970s, the only "rescue kit" in use comprised a .303 rifle and a box of bullets.

The other members are Reece Hesketh (Opua), Jochen Zaeschmar (Opua), Wendy Turner (Auckland), Kerry O'Brien (Auckland) and Jo Berghan (Taipa).

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