Dire dolphin angst in sad whale waste

By Nicola Young

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MAJOR ATTRACTION: The whale rotting on Taranaki rocks.  Photo/Supplied
MAJOR ATTRACTION: The whale rotting on Taranaki rocks. Photo/Supplied

Thar she blows!

No going on a bear hunt this weekend - it was a whale hunt instead.

And yep we found her - a big rotting blue whale, no longer inspirational.

We weren't alone either. There were hundreds of people traipsing along the beach, just a few kilometres down from our coastal village. All sorts of ages were present, lots of children and a surprising number of baby bumps - it reminded me of when I was first pregnant with Mitchell and all of a sudden, I noticed pregnant bellies everywhere.

There were plenty of gumboots - it is Taranaki - as well as inappropriate city shoes, jandals and headscarves. Lots of dogs cavorting about, even a lapdog being carried along the beach, missing out on the socialising.

It said something to me that all these people would come out to see the world's largest mammal, dragging their kids, as we did, up and down hills, along beaches, over rocks - my boys insisted on climbing up the rocks and jumping down - literally reminiscent of Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt!

Whales are an inspirational figure to many and the opportunity to see one in the flesh, if not quite in real life, was too rare an event to miss.

When we finally got to the carcass, it wasn't a disappointment as much as a good old-fashioned downer. The beautiful creature was looking a bit worse for wear, putrefying up on the rocks. The pong wasn't too strong, but we didn't hang around long either. Most people kept talking about how sad it was to see this majestic creature wasting away.

It got me thinking about Maui's dolphins and the recent decision by the Government to open up a marine mammal sanctuary to oil and gas exploration. This sanctuary was established to protect Maui's dolphin - there are only an estimated 55 left in the world.

I was pretty surprised to see a National Party advert in my local community paper taking potshots, too. It said, "A Labour/Green coalition could put thousands of Taranaki jobs at risk and create more greenhouse gas emissions."

I checked to see whether it was properly authorised - yep, by local MP Jonathan Young. He even included a quote from Greens co-leader Russel Norman in the advert: "We are opposed to increasing the risk to Maui's dolphins by allowing new oil and gas exploration."

It didn't make sense to me - I think most of the Kiwis who made the hour-each-way walk along the beach, encouraging, cajoling and bribing their kids, really care about the environment and our marine mammals and don't want more risk for Maui's. (I won't go into critiquing the nonsense that the Greens in Government could increase emissions.)

It made me wonder how much the "out of sight, out of mind" reality affects political priorities.

Maui's dolphins are so rare most of us will never see one - unless one washes up on the beach. The only reason this blue whale was left to decay in the elements was it was too large to move from an isolated spot, while a poor ole Maui's dolphin is small enough to fit in your bathtub so any dead ones are easily moved.

Now I'm not advocating that more dead animals are good for conservation awareness or politics (recall David Shearer's unfortunate snapper incident). But these very rare species, like the kakapo or the giant weta, remain an enigma if you never see them.

That's why so many people were out last weekend - they recognised this opportunity to be in awe of nature. And it's more than an infatuation - whales are part of our ancient and modern culture. Whale Rider, the Niki Caro 2002 film based on Witi Ihimaera's novel, remains one of my faves. At a more pop-culture level, the Beached Whale cartoon is another classic - and the latest spin-off features the whale in a Greenpeace campaign about the damage of plastic in our oceans.

We need to err on the side of caution for our critically endangered Maui's - reduce risk, don't increase it.

Nicola Young is a former Department of Conservation manager who now works for global consultancy AECOM. Educated at Wanganui Girls' College, she has a science degree and is the mother of two boys.

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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