A planned horse ride along Ninety Mile Beach took a heartbreaking turn when a trio of Far North locals discovered a pilot whale helpless in shallow water.
The juvenile whale was the first of five found marooned on the shore of the west coast beach on Tuesday afternoon - four of which were pilot whales, and the fifth was a sperm whale.
Lohnet Murray said she had just left her son and daughter-in-law’s house on horseback when she noticed the large upturned whale directly ahead of them.
“We went back home and let the horses go, and went straight down to try to turn it over to get it back into the water before the tide went out.”
With the tide moving quickly, the trio had to work fast.
“[The whale] was quite active when we first found it, it was thrashing around a little bit,” Murray said.
“But then it got weaker and weaker.”
Murray said the whale was quiet - the only sounds apart from the occasional exhale through the whale’s blowhole were the whipping winds and crashing surf.
“It was distressing, especially when you see that it was getting tired.”
The trio tried but couldn’t turn the whale on their own, so Murray put a plea for help on Facebook.
“It was amazing, the amount of people that showed up,” she said.
One of those people told the group they had discovered another whale, dead, further up the beach, Murray said.
“Everyone worked together for two to three hours just to try to save this whale.”
A wet T-shirt was laid across the whale’s head and strops were laced beneath it.
With the tide now well out from underneath the whale, locals used a tractor to hoist it off the sand and deliver it to deeper water.
“Quite a few men stayed in the deep water for some time until it gained its strength,” Murray said.
Once it had, the whale headed further offshore.
Rachele Matthews, who heeded her cousin’s call for help, said the feat had been an “emotional time” for locals and iwi as they could feel the whale’s “wairua and confusion”.
“It was an eerie feeling, as if the whale was telling us it was tired and had no more kaha [strength].
“Even after it was refloated with the help of a local on his tractor and the manpower lifting it with strops to shallow water, the whale had no energy to fight against the crashing waves to reach deep waters,” she said.
“I’m sure we all had a tear to shed.”
Matthews said a small karanga to send the whale on its way as it “was guided out to sea”.
With the pilot whale on its way, locals rushed the aid of a second whale which they also successfully refloated.
Whales are considered a taonga species and are regarded as chiefly animals in Māoridom.
Department of Conservation (DoC) marine technical adviser Hannah Hendrick said there was some evidence stormy weather can cause whales to strand, “though it is difficult to know for sure”.
“It is possible that the storm could affect their sonar and cause disorientation.”
DoC Northland spokeswoman Abigail Monteith thanked the locals who helped last night.
“DoC will be working closely with Te Rarawa and Ngāi Takoto on the response.”