Environmental organisations are working to bury a whale that died after becoming stranded on the sandbar of a Christchurch beach, despite major efforts to save it.
Environmental organisation Project Jonah said last night it was assisting in efforts to aid the sperm whale on South New Brighton Beach in Christchurch alongside Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri Rūnanga and the Department of Conservation (DoC).
In an update this morning, Project Jonah said the whale had died.
“Large whales like this one pose a huge [logistical] challenge for a refloat due to their size and weight, and often they have underlying health conditions, which is likely the reason for them stranding,” the organisation posted online.
“In New Zealand, there have only been four successful refloats of sperm whales - the last one being in Timaru in 2020.”
This afternoon, Project Jonah said in an update the whale was being buried at the beach.
The organisation acknowledged the public frustrations with their “perceived inaction on the beach”.
“We were in constant discussions with the multiple agencies responding throughout the event - running different possible scenarios that prioritise both peoples safety and the whales’ welfare,” the organisation posted online.
The ID pictures of the 15-metre sperm whale are presently being matched to the comprehensive Kaikōura catalogue, but currently, no matches have been discovered.
“Many people reached out to ask how they can be involved with Project Jonah, and we will post about this tomorrow,” the organisation said.
“Today, we are just taking a moment to acknowledge the passing of this magnificent animal.”
Project Jonah general manager Daren Grover told the Herald the organisation was first alerted to reports of a whale on the beach about 4.45pm on Saturday. Volunteers, along with Environment Canterbury, DoC, iwi and police were in attendance throughout the evening, he said.
“It was being rolled by the action of the ocean, so in that situation, it’s just far too dangerous to put people directly hands-on with the whale, and so we were watching and waiting to see what was going to happen with the incoming tide.”
More than 1000 people were at the beach by sunset, Grover estimated.
“A few people were frustrated they weren’t seeing more action, but to be honest, with whales of this size, there’s very little we can do, and we always have to put human health and safety first.”
DoC maintained a presence overnight, and around 4.30am, the whale was checked and noted to be not breathing.
“That was monitored through the morning, and so at sunrise people started arriving again, but then we went into what we call the recovery process, so that’s a blessing at sunrise from local iwi, and then into this stage now of burying the whale.”
Grover said the organisation was “incredibly frustrated” they were not able to do more.
“This is just distressing because we want to help, but we have very few tools to help animals this big, and at the same time, can only imagine the suffering and the stress that the whale is feeling too.”
One of the people at the beach on Sunday morning, Michael Moran, said there were two diggers at the beach.
He said the scene was “really sombre”, with lots of people in attendance.
Project Jonah said it was the fifth sperm whale that had died in the last month, following three strandings in Northland and one in Māhia.
Te Ngāi Tūāhuriri were performing a karakia and would work with DoC to remove the whale.
The whale was alive as of 9.30pm.
It was stranded on the ocean side of a sandbar, which was too deep to walk to.
Project Jonah decided late last night not to remain in the water overnight and to resume the rescue this morning.
Andy Thompson, DoC operations manager for the Mahaanui District, said it was a female sperm whale between 11 and 15 metres long.
“DoC staff are on-site and working with iwi to assist with the removal and proper care of the taonga.” he said.
“Marine mammal strandings are not fully understood, and DoC responds to an average 85 marine mammal stranding incidents a year, mostly of single animals.”
“Please assist the response by respecting any restrictions put in place by DoC, Ngāi Tūāhuriri, Project Jonah or the police, and by not heading to the beach to sight-see,” Project Jonah said.