When Jessica Parkin heard there was a stranded orca on the beach at Patea she did not hesitate to jump in the car and drive there in the early hours of yesterday morning.

"I didn't even know where Patea is but when my mum said there was an orca there I knew I had to go even though it was the middle of the night," the Whanganui 23-year-old said.

Jessica's mum, Andrea Edwards, heard about the stranding through social media and knew her daughter had been a lover of the giant marine mammals since she was a child and that she would want the chance to see one.

By the time the pair arrived at Patea Beach, at around 2am, the whale had died and the rescuers had left the beach.


"I was disappointed not to see it alive, but I did wade into the water and touch its tail, which was amazing," said Jessica.

Asked what it felt like, she said: "Rubber."

Jessica arrived in Whanganui from Blackpool, England, just 16 months ago.

In four weeks she will be leaving to train as a police officer in Wellington.

"I am going to Tauranga next week, and and I hope I'll get to see some orcas there.

"We don't get to see orcas off the English Coast."

Department of Conservation staff and local iwi were holding a karakia on the beach yesterday morning and samples were being taken for testing before the whale is buried.

Whanganui DOC operations manager Jasmine Hessell said in spite of the huge effort by local volunteers and DOC staff, the large mammal was unable to be kept alive and refloated.

Dr Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust, a world expert on orcas, was disappointed that she was not contacted by DOC staff yesterday.

"The death of this whale is a tragedy that could have been avoided. It probably would have been better to move the orca above the tide line overnight.

"There are less than 200 orcas left around the New Zealand coastline, so this one is a terrible loss."

Dr Visser has been involved with many successful rescues of stranded orcas and said strandings are common around New Zealand.

"They get stranded when they chase stingrays into the shallow water and they just make mistakes - a bit like we make some poor judgments when driving our cars."

The doctor said she would like to take the opportunity to dispel some urban mythology about orcas and beach rescues.

"A popular misconception is that the whales' organs are crushed when they are lying on the beach and that is just not true," she said.

"They do have trouble breathing - just like we would if we were to lie on our chest for too long."

Dr Visser said orcas dive to great depths and their organs are well evolved to cope with the pressure. The first documented orca rescue was at Mangawhai Beach, Northland, in 1997 and Dr Visser said the whale, named "Ben" by the research trust, has been sighted many times during the past 19 years.