Children with buckets, firefighters with hoses and adults with shovels laboured for hours to help an orca whale stranded on the Patea coast on Sunday night, Robert Northcott says.

The Chronicle found the Patea Beach resident, Coastguard member and South Taranaki councillor at home at midnight, having a meal and nursing hands calloused by digging.

The stranded whale was spotted about 6pm from the top lookout above the beach as catches from a fishing competition were being weighed. The marine mammal was about one kilometre north up the beach.

It was said to be a young female, about 7m long, and she may have been at the spot since high tide at 1.40pm.

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Mr Northcott took the Coastguard ATV to the spot, and people started arriving. At peak there were about 150 there.

Their first priority was to right her. She was on her side, and they were afraid her organs would be crushed by her own weight. They dug a trench on one side and 12 people pushed.

Kaumatua said karakia and blessed her and the fire brigade used a portable pump to keep her wet. Department of Conservation staff arrived about 8pm.

"We had all sorts of people doing all sorts of things. There was really good community spirit shown," Mr Northcott said.

Some were working around the whale's head, and talking to her.

"She was breathing and making noises, in obvious distress."

The tide started coming in about 8pm, with a high for 2am, and rescuers hoped she could be refloated, but were told there wasn't much hope because she wasn't making enough effort herself. Rescuers got five people on each side and pushed, but it was dangerous work, with the waves pushing them and the whale further up the beach.

It got dark, and finally everyone went home, although Mr Northcott said no one really wanted to give up.

By the time the Chronicle trudged up the beach at 12.30am, with two Whanganui women, the incoming tide was still pushing the whale inland. She appeared to be possibly still alive, with a few tail movements.

Only footprints and tyre tracks on the beach marked the rescue attempt.

By morning the whale was dead.