Emotions on a remote Far North beach swung from euphoria to despair and back to cautious optimism yesterday as hundreds of people battled to save eight rare pygmy whales.
On Monday evening the Department of Conservation called on volunteers to head to Rarawa Beach, 60km north of Kaitaia, to help refloat the creatures which had stranded a day earlier near the top of Ninety Mile Beach.
The call was answered by more than 300 people — including locals, iwi, schoolchildren, DoC staff and whale rescue groups — who descended on the beach from around the North Island.
Community ranger Jamie Werner, of Kaitaia, said heavy seas at Ninety Mile Beach made a successful refloating unlikely as well as dangerous, so DoC decided to shift the pygmy whales to the east coast instead.
On Monday evening the eight survivors of the original 12 were loaded on to padded trailers and transported in convoy about 20km via forestry roads and State Highway 1 to Rarawa Beach.
There the pygmy whales — which, despite their name, are a rare species of oceanic dolphin — were kept in an estuary overnight before being carried to the sea yesterday morning.
Groups of wetsuited volunteers held the animals in the surf for an hour while they regained their buoyancy and readjusted to the water.
Two of the pod's dominant females were placed in pontoons and towed further out to sea in the hope of enticing the others to follow.
About 10.30am 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 euthanise 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 in a bid 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.
At last report yesterday the six survivors were about 400m off shore and slowly heading north.
Werner said DoC would keep monitoring them ''as long as we have to''.
Te Aupouri and Ngāti Kuri will be consulted today about what to do with the dead pygmy whales. It is likely samples will be taken before they are buried in the dunes in line with tikanga.