A massive effort to save a pod of rare pygmy whales has had a tragic ending, with five of the six creatures refloated on Tuesday re-stranding on another beach further north yesterday.
Department of Conservation spokeswoman Abigail Monteith said the difficult decision had been made to euthanase the five pygmy whales.
At edition time yesterday DOC said its staff and other whale rescue experts, who arrived at Great Exhibition Bay about 11.15am yesterday, would continue to monitor one pygmy whale which remained at sea.
The mammals, a rare type of oceanic dolphin, first stranded near the top of Ninety Mile Beach on Sunday night. They were transported on a convoy of padded trailers using forestry tracks to Rarawa Beach 60km north of Kaitaia on theother coast, where calmer conditions would improve chances of a successful refloating, on Monday evening.
More than 300 people — including DOC staff, locals, schoolchildren, iwi and whale rescue groups — descended on Rarawa Beach to help release the eight whales yesterday. Six made it out to sea but two were euthanased after repeatedly re-stranding.
Great Exhibition Bay is a long sweep of sand on the east coast between Rarawa Beach and the entrance to Parengarenga Harbour.
Emotions on Rarawa beach swung from euphoria to despair to cautious optimism on Tuesday as hundreds battled to save the whales. On Monday eveningDOC had called for volunteers.
Community ranger Jamie Werner of Kaitaia said heavy seas at Ninety Mile Beach made a successful refloating there unlikely and dangerous, so DOC shifted the whales to the east coast.
There the whales were kept in an estuary overnight before being carried to the sea on Tuesday morning. Groups of wetsuited volunteers held the animals in the surf for an hour while they regained buoyancy and adjusted to the water. Two of the pod's dominant females were placed in pontoons and towed further out to sea to entice the others to follow.
About 10.30am on Tuesday the pygmy whales were released while hundreds of volunteers formed a human chain in the shallows and made as much noise as possible — shouting, splashing, even banging pieces of metal together — to drive them away from shore.
Cheers swept the beach as each animal was released but the mood changed as it became clear not all was well.
Some of the pygmy whales appeared lethargic and were floating belly up. Two in particular kept drifting back to the beach.
Three times rescuers tried to return the creatures to the sea before making what Werner described as the "heartbreaking decision" to euthanase two of them.
"They were clearly the weakest. When they started calling the others we made the terrible decision to euthanase them for the sake of the others."
The volunteers were given a chance to tearfully farewell the whales before Te Aupouri kaumatua Heta Conrad recited a final karakia. They were screened with sheets and dispatched with a high-powered rifle.
When the two matriarchs also tried to return to shore DOC switched tactics, using a pair of IRBs from Ahipara-based Far North Surf Rescue to drive the animals out to deeper water.
Jo "Floppy" Halliday, of Northland-based WhaleRescue.org, said helpers in the boats wrapped their arms around the matriarchs, hugged them to the side of the boat and slowly moved them into deeper water where the rest of the pod had grouped about 100m offshore.
All the while Wikitoria Makiha, from Motukiore in Hokianga, recited karakia as she paced in the surf and implored the creatures to return to the ocean.