Volunteers kept beached mammals alive two days before rescue

There was hope for 64 stranded pilot whales last night when they were finally helped on their way to the safety of deeper water.

An army of 300 volunteers worked from Friday to help the pod of 198 mammals beached along Farewell Spit at Golden Bay, near Nelson.

At least 70 died overnight Friday. Yesterday morning, 70 live pilot whales were still stranded at Triangle Flat - but at high tide in early evening most were helped into the water.

"It was a good day to be a stranded whale," Andrew Lamason of the Department of Conservation (DoC) said. "It was overcast with a bit of light rain, much better conditions than the baking hot weather the day before, when we lost quite a few."

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Slings were placed around the surviving whales to get them off the sand and on to pontoons to help them back out to sea.

"The lead whales were swimming out in the right direction and getting closer to deeper water," Lamason said. "The other whales were following, so the signs are good."

The large group of helpers worked alongside 30 trained Project Jonah medics.

Project Jonah general manager Daren Grover said the original stranding site was 5km from where the pod was yesterday.

It was much easier for volunteers working on rotation to access the stranded whales at yesterday's site. The pod was spread over half a kilometre down the beach, he added.

Some 300 volunteers worked from Friday to help the pod of beached whales. Photo / Tim Cuff
Some 300 volunteers worked from Friday to help the pod of beached whales. Photo / Tim Cuff

"It meant getting the whales upright, because if they are on their side and the tide comes in they can drown.

"A lot of the work was done in the morning, on stabilising the animals. Then we look to move as many of the points of stress as we can. We work calmly with the animals, no sudden moves. We keep our voices nice and low and keep them as cool as we can."

Grover said the response from the public was "fantastic".

"I'm always gobsmacked the response we get from local community and holiday makers and tourists who were pulling their sleeves up and helping out."

DoC's Lamason said if they had been unsuccessful in rescuing the whales, euthanasia would have been considered. "If we get to a situation where it looks like they are unduly suffering, then we would have a discussion with the guys on the ground who know best. But our focus was on getting them out.

"However, if they re-strand or their health rapidly declines there is that other option."

Lamason called for more helpers to be on standby today in case the same pod stranded themselves again.