On Wednesday 17th November of 1993 myself (Paul Blackley) and Richard Harvey were on our way to the South Island of New Zealand in search of waves. We had traveled down from New Plymouth and were on the cross Island ferry about to disembark at Picton at 10pm when we heard a call on local radio from the Dept. of Conservation for volunteers to help to try and rescue stranded Long-finned Pilot Whales at Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, South Island, New Zealand.

Paul Blackley

Paul on the ferry to the South Island

With our friend and fellow surfer Richard Holmes from Newcastle a debate soon started as to whether we should go to the help of the whales. It was already late into the evening and we would be driving for many hours in the opposite direction to where we had planned to be on the first night. Initially the two Richards were not very keen on the idea, as they were looking forward to getting to Kaikoura and the famous right hand point break of Mangamanu only 2 hours away.

Ritchie and Richard Holmes

Richard Harvey & Rich Holmes

I was very determined that we should drive to Farewell Spit, being fascinated by whales and dolphins for many years, I set about persuading the two Richards that they should help. None of us had even seen a whale before. I offered to do most of the driving and someone pointed out that it would be a great story to tell when chatting up the hippy chicks. This seemed to work and we planned our route to Farewell Spit.

Debating whether to help save the Pilot Whales

It'd make a great chat up line with the hippy chicks Rich...

It was a very long drive along many winding and what seemed like mountainous roads in the dark. Richard Harvey took over some of the driving at this point, which only made the journey feel longer, as his ability to brake so late on the corners kept Richard Holmes and myself wide awake. However, the fact that we would be putting something back into the ocean after having years of enjoyment from it made the journey feel worthwhile.

Eventually we made it to Farewell Spit at 3.30am and we were all absolutely shattered. We didn’t know if we were in the right place and there was no one about. We had come to the end of the road and were confronted with a few wooden buildings. The three of us entered the first building to find a room with camp beds all set up, but still no one about. We were so tired that we decided to grab our sleeping bags and try to get a couple of hours sleep before trying to find the other rescuers in the morning.

After only about an hours sleep we were woken by a soldier from the New Zealand army telling us to get up and get into our wetsuits and be ready to board the army truck in 20 minutes. When we walked out of the wooden building we were confronted by lots of people, cars, trucks and the New Zealand army. No one questioned who we were and it all seemed a bit surreal. Grabbing some fruit from the car and getting into our wetsuits we were soon in the back of an army truck being driven along the beach.

Volunteers worked hard right through the night

Volunteers worked hard right through the night to try and save the whales

It was still dark and a very cold damp morning. Farewell Spit has a very gently sloping beach and stretches for 35km. The whales had stranded some way a long the beach, and everyone was very quiet on the truck in anticipation as to what they would find when we got to the whales. Some volunteers had stayed with the whales over night, but there was a big worry that some of the whales may not have survived.

Reality dawned as they came across a whale that didn't make it through the night
Reality dawned as they came across a whale that didn’t make it through the night

Eventually the truck stopped and we all climbed out. Sadly the first whale we came across was dead. Nothing was said between us but it was a very strange experience. We had never seen a whale before and now we were standing next to a dead Long Finned Pilot whale. There was no more time to think about it as we were soon taken to the main pod of whales.

Richard Harvey & Richard Holmes

Richard Harvey & Richard Holmes try to right a whale

The stranding was of a mixed pod of 61 Long-finned pilot whales, Globicephala melas and there were 43 whales still alive. Large males, females and calves were among the survivors. The volunteers that had been there all night looked exhausted. We were told that some of the larger whales still needed to be made upright and if it didn’t happen soon then they would suffer problems with their balance and may swim round in circles or roll upside down and drown.

Volunteers try to right a whale

Volunteers try to right a whale

Ritchie trying to help lift a whale

Richard Harvey helps to lift a whale

Volunteers grabbed shovels or just started to dig with their hands to dig small trenches alongside the whales, so it would be easier to roll them upright. We also packed sand along their sides whilst making sure their pectoral fins were also supporting them so they couldn’t roll back over. Some of the whales had their flippers stuck under them which made it very difficult to move them. We soon found while trying to dig around the whale’s flippers that just under the sand was tiny broken pieces of shell which were very sharp especially to a whale’s sensitive blubber. Some of the whales were lying in puddles and were struggling to breathe as their blow holes were under water and they were thrashing about to get a breath. These whales had to be worked on quickly. One problem was that some of the whales were lying so close to one another that they could not be rolled upright without physically moving them. Slings were used, by sliding them under the whales with people either side to take hold of the slings and lift a whale. It took a lot of people to lift and move a whale so it was upright and even though most of the volunteers had not done this before everyone seemed to be very efficient.

Rich and Ricthie keep the whales wet

Rich Harvey and Rich Holmes help to keep the whales hydrated

Keeping the whales hydrated

The boys kept the whales wet constantly

Some of the larger whales were initially quite distressed and would thrash their tales about especially when we were trying to lift them with the slings. Getting hit by a whale thrashing about could be very dangerous to the whale and the person. In previous rescue attempts volunteers had suffered broken arms, ribs, jaws and even been knocked unconscious. Everyone stayed calm and tried to soothe the whales by talking to them in very calm voices, trying to reassure the whale it was going to be ok. I’m sure that whales don’t understand English or Maori but it seemed to work and soon everyone was deep in conversation with their whales.

Paul keeps the whale calm

Paul Blackley talking to the whale and keeping it calm

Buckets were handed out and sheets were laid across the whales and made wet. Although to us it was very cold and damp to the whales there was a very high chance of them becoming dehydrated. We constantly would pour water onto the whales while reassuring them that everything was going to be ok. Looking into a whale’s eye and seeing it look right back at me was amazing. The whale must have been very frightened, but the look in its eye seemed to be a look of trust.

Paul, Ritchie and Richard

Paul, Ritchie and Rich looking after a Pilot Whale

By lunchtime we were told to take a break and get some food, but to come back before the tide came back in. By this time all we wanted to do was help the whales so we ate some food as fast as we could and got the next truck back to the whales. The Department of Conservation had managed to get hold of a couple of diggers and they were used to dig a channel out to sea.

Paul & Rich keeping the Pilot Whale wet

Paul & Rich work to help the whales

As the tide came back in and the pools around the whales started to fill with water you could tell the relief the whales felt. We were told that we must start to rock the whales from side to side to help with their balance. There was a real danger that the whales may have been on the beach too long and when they try to swim away they would spin upside down and drown as their balance would have been affected by the prolonged period on the beach.

Keeping the whale hydrated

Keeping the whale hydrated

Everyone was split in to equal groups around each of the whales in an attempt to keep them together when they were released back into the ocean. By this time there were boats in the water with nets and buoys to try and keep the pod altogether. It was extremely important to keep the pod together when moving them back out to sea, because if the whales were split up there was a high probability that they would strand again. Earlier a whale that had stranded about 1km from the main pod was lifted up in a sling tied to a diggers bucket and carried back to the main pod. This was extremely dangerous and they only used the diggers to lift the whales in the very extreme circumstances. As the tide came in we started to try and coax the whales to the channel, pushing, pulling, lifting and very importantly rocking the whales back forth to help them regain balance. Now that the whales could start to move in the water the volunteers had to be very careful of the whales tails that were flicking about. By now up the sea was up to our waists and it meant that there were now only three of us in wetsuits looking after our whale. There were a few photographers and television crews about now as we were shepherding the whales slowly back to the sea our whale decided to make a break for it straight for one of the TV crews on board a boat. I could here people shouting to us to keep our whale with the others but he had other ideas and was just taking us for a ride. Eventually another volunteer jumped on too and we slowed the whale down and the other whales caught up. When we had made it to about chest deep in the water the whales were let to swim free.

Some of the whales were obviously struggling with their balance and would spin upside down but other whales helped the ones in trouble by nudging them until they seemed to regain balance. It was so lovely to see all the whales swimming along the shoreline after spending nearly all day with them not knowing if they would survive. All the volunteers formed a big long line waist deep in the water to deter the whales from coming ashore again.

Back on the beach Richard Holmes was confronted by all the press and media. We found out later that all the National Newspapers and both TV News stations had run the story that three surfers from England had cut short the their travels to help save whales. Unfortunately we were living out of the back of a car and missed it all.

Long finned Pilot Whale skeleton

A sad reminder of how common it is for whales to strand here

Scientists and other researchers have been unable to say exactly why whales strand. Experts have said there about 15 main theories, ranging from pods following a sick or disoriented leader, or the pod trying to help a young whale stranded by accident.

Another possibility is that when the seafloor is gently sloping, the sonar signals the whales use to navigate may give a false indication of deeper water if the bottom is sand or mud.

It is thought that if an animal gets in trouble it will call for help and other animals will come round and support it. A single pilot whale getting stuck in the sand might be enough to bring the whole family to its aid, stranding all of them.

Some mass strandings have thought to be linked to an animal with a heavy load of parasites, while others have apparently involved pregnant females going into the shallows while having difficulty giving birth.

Pilot whales are extremely social and show strong herd behaviour, swimming in large pods of up to 200, though pods of up to 1000 have stranded in New Zealand. The long-finned pilot whales is so called because they like to travel in “pods” of up to 200 animals with one whale in the lead acting as a “pilot”. They have bulbous heads and are known to dive as far as 914m below the sea’s surface when they are in the deep ocean. Usually, they strand on gently sloping beaches, such as at the base of Farewell Spit, Golden Bay.

Paul Blackley at Mangamanu

Paul having breakfast by the railway line at Mangamanu and the magificant views of the mountains you get from the line up

We eventually got back to our travels and looking for waves and when we got to Mangamanu, Kaikoura we were blessed with head high waves for about 5 days. Some of the waves we surfed that week were so long it was easier to get out and walk back along the railway line to the point to paddle out again. We surfed all day everyday and into the night until we just couldn’t see anymore. God, Huey or who ever you believe in definitely smiled down on us that week.

Paul Blackley at Mangamanu

Paul Blackley after an evening session at Managamanu

Richard Harvey walking back along the railway line at Mangamanu
Richard Harvey walking back along the railway line at Mangamanu