This week, the Herald takes a look at Kiwis who are dedicated to helping our animals. Today Jamie Morton talks to Project Jonah's Daren Glover.

It was Friday the 13th when conservationists were met with a nightmare situation in shallow waters at the South Island's northern point.

At some time during Friday, February 13, 2015, nearly 200 pilot whales stranded themselves at Farewell Spit, in Golden Bay - the worst such event in more than 15 years.

By the time the alarm was raised that afternoon, it was too late for many of them.

News pictures show the heartbreaking scenes that faced volunteers and locals: dozens of whales, lifeless in the water, with seabirds perched on their carcasses.

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In another, a barefoot Department of Conservation ranger Mike Ogle stands solemnly over the body of a calf, a little under 2m long, in ankle-deep tide.

But there were also incredible displays of compassion and humanity: people of all ages in the water, with arms linked, keeping the survivors away from the shore.

At first light on the Saturday morning, DoC and volunteer organisation Project Jonah had been ready to respond with 30 volunteers, a similar number of DoC staff and an army of more than 500 members of the public.

Although 128 whales never made it back to sea, nearly 70 were refloated.

It was a learning experience for each person who turned out to help, with Project Jonah workers guiding them on how to look after the whales while also keeping themselves safe.

DOC ranger Mike Ogle finds a dead infant among the stranded whales on Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, on February 13, 2015. Photo / File
DOC ranger Mike Ogle finds a dead infant among the stranded whales on Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, on February 13, 2015. Photo / File

For the organisation, it was another example of the countless times it's responded to a major stranding over its four decades of operation.

When it was launched in the early 1970s, there was talk that commercial whaling, which had ended in New Zealand in 1965, might re-start.

Most whale species were critically endangered and this move was seen as the death knell for several species, driving them to extinction.

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The whale stranding on Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, in February 2015. Photo / File
The whale stranding on Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, in February 2015. Photo / File

Project Jonah's local chapters hosted a series of public meetings to raise awareness of this possibility and called upon the Government to return to the International Whaling Commission and commit to not allowing commercial whaling in our waters.

New Zealand eventually rejoined the IWC in 1976 - and has remained in it ever since.
This set the charity's founding aim: to protect whales and dolphins.

"We continued to campaign, seeking legal protection of marine mammals, which the Government agreed to and created the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1978, which is still in place today," its general manager Daren Glover said.

Members of Project Jonah battle to turn over a female pilot whale as dawn breaks on the second day of a mass stranding at Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, in February 2015. Photo / File
Members of Project Jonah battle to turn over a female pilot whale as dawn breaks on the second day of a mass stranding at Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, in February 2015. Photo / File

"Campaigning for protection is still at the heart of what Project Jonah stands for."

It's a crucial organisation to have in a country like New Zealand, where more than half of the world's 88 whale species can be seen living in or migrating through territorial waters.

New Zealand has a long and varied coastline spanning many degrees of longitude, with large hooks of land that jut out into the ocean, along with deep ocean trenches running close to its coastlines.

This combination of geography and abundance of marine mammals sees our country record more strandings than anywhere else in the world.

Project Jonah workers tend to a stranded whale. Photo / Supplied
Project Jonah workers tend to a stranded whale. Photo / Supplied

We also have one of three globally recognised "whale traps" in the shape of Golden Bay, making it a hotspot for strandings, due to its gently sloping beaches and extreme tidal action.

Strandings can be complicated affairs, Glover said, and sometimes several elements combine to eventually cause a stranding.

A whale may simply be ill, injured or old, and unable to swim strongly enough to resist the tide.

A pod containing juveniles may be preyed upon - most usually by orca - and will flee trying to find safety.

Often, a pod searching for food can come close to shore and be caught out by fast-moving tides or geography.

"It's not very often we narrow it down to one simple reason why an animal may strand, but it's the No. 1 question we are asked by curious members of the public."

On average, Project Jonah may attend between 20 and 30 strandings in a year, through either joining volunteers on the beach or giving advice from afar.

Glover said his group, which has a support agreement with DoC, was always on standby to respond at a moment's notice.

Across the country, it also runs workshops and a public course that forms part of the curriculum at several tertiary institutes.

"When we're not responding to strandings or running courses then you will find us presenting to schools and community groups and raising vital funds to continue our work."

With just two staff in a shared office space in Auckland, volunteers were vital to the cause.

The staff are responsible for the day-to-day running of the organisation, ensuring it gets to strandings, fundraising, running courses and co-ordinating volunteers.

"These volunteers provide many and varied skills and support, from graphic design and writing stories, maintaining our computer network and database, sharing our messages of environmental awareness to their communities and of course, attending strandings."

Project Jonah volunteers work with a stranded whale. Photo / Supplied
Project Jonah volunteers work with a stranded whale. Photo / Supplied

A typical summer's day at the beach could quickly become dangerous if a pod of 50 whales stranded themselves there.

But with the right equipment and knowledge, anyone could play a vital role in the potential success of a stranding.

"Whales are large animals and highly stressed when stranded on the beach," Glover said.

"On our marine mammal medic course we teach our volunteers the techniques needed to keep stranded whales alive, how to get whales back into the ocean, as well as the dangers about working around these animals."

The health of the stranded animals often dictated whether they would be successfully returned to the ocean.

"Sometimes, despite the best efforts of the rescuers, the whales simply won't swim out to deeper water."

This could be emotionally distressing for volunteers, especially those who had spent hours working with individual whales that couldn't be saved.

"Part of our training is to educate volunteers of the emotional risks as well as the physical ones, and we reach out to our volunteers after each stranding to check with them and offer the opportunity to discuss their feelings," Glover said.

"We encourage everyone to share their experiences to help come to terms with the feeling they are holding associated with the stranding."

He added that, when seeing a stranding, our own instincts or emotions weren't always best to follow: what might seem like the right thing to do for a drowning human, or a fish out of water, may well be the opposite thing to do for a stranded whale.

"Humans have an emotional response to urgently help and resolve a problem quickly," he said.

"Strandings can often be long, drawn-out affairs and we often ask for patience from those who have come to watch or help but have never seen one before."

People who discovered a stranded marine mammal were urged to phone either DoC on 0800 DOC HOT or Project Jonah on 0800 4 WHALE, so they could receive guidance and ensure support could be mobilised to assist.

What to do in a whale stranding

• Stay away from a whale's tail at all times.
• Keep whales wet using light cotton sheets and pouring water on the whale.
• Do not pour water down the whale's blowhole - they breathe through it.
• Call for help as soon as you find a marine mammal in distress.