Islanders save the whales

Isle of Wight County Press

IW Men in New Zealand whale rescue

TWO NEWPORT men have been part of a desperate struggle to save a pod of pilot whales beached on New Zealand’s South Island. Former County Press employee Paul Blackley, of Caesars Road and Richard Harvey, of Field Place, were driving with friend Richard Holmes, of Newcastle, Wellington, when they heard a call for help on a local radio station. A pod of 61 mammals had beached themselves at Farewell Spit, Golden Bay, and volunteers were needed to help refloat them on the next tide. Clad in wetsuits, the men joined efforts to right the whales – in order for the mammals to retain a sense of balance – and keep them wet until the tide flooded in. During the operation, rescuers had to run the gauntlet of the whales, thrashing their tales with enough force to break bones or knock helpers unconscious. Paul, who left the County Press camera room earlier this year and went on an Antipodean surfing trip, said that having years of enjoyment from the ocean he wanted to put something back into it – in his case literally. At the end of a long day and much anxiety, 43 of the whales found their way back to sea. “It is an experience we will remember as one of the highlights of the trip,” said Paul.

Image caption: Paul Blackley, far left, and Richard Harvey, second left, help fellow surfers to prevent whales becoming dehydrated by covering them in wet sheets.

Uk surfers look after stranded whales

The Dominion. Wellington. Wednesday November 24th 1993.

Gentle whale-minders

Who are the people who rush in to save beached whales? Rebecca Norris went to Nelson to find out.

Willow Sherwood borrowed off a customer at the Nelson café where she works, finished her shift, had two hour sleep and was on the road by 4am – in the name of saving a whale. She was the first I spotted when I arrived at Farewell Spit. Her bedraggled hair told me she had not long been out of the water, the coffee in her hand told me she was cold, and the light in her eyes told it all. “Last week I saw it on telly but I wasn’t able to get here in time,” she says. “When they called for more volunteers I asked all the customers if they could lend me a wetsuit. A complete stranger gave me one.” Her name and manner suggest she made be a hippy (of the modern kind, perhaps, who make love to whales, not war). What else can you do when you are 19 and fresh faced? Protests against the Government are passé; save a whale and you can change a world. “They were distressed, especially the babies, who were whining. They make a lot of noise breathing. I know one thing, they’ve got bad breath!” Willow would know, after standing in the sea for 6 hours. In groups of two or three people were assigned their own whales, and the great love affair began. All spoke of becoming attached to “their” whale. Willow described it as an addiction. Blwholes, mucus membranes, bites from “killer” whales and spirituality were the buzz-words. The strength of the mammals betrayed gentleness. Beached they are passive – watch the tails, though – but once they were floated out, the minders were targets for an enthusiastic baby following the pod. The answer to the much-asked question was yes, they do know what is going on: “We were told to talk to them, rub between their blowholes – sounds easy as owning a cat – and they did calm down.

I left Willow in the world I’d found her in and strolled around a wire fence-cum-clothesline for wetsuits, to Volker Mueller, who has lived in New Zealand for seven years. Nearly a true blue Kiwi if it weren’t for that German accent, but definitely a true blue whale saver after attending numerous rescues over three years. I was too chicken to tell him his sun-bleached hair, charming manner and toned, tanned muscles make him a prime target for sceptics who have seen the glory hunters on these missions. He looked into his coffee to see to drowning sandflies. “Everyone comes to save the whales, but no one comes to save the sandflies.” “My first contact with whales, I realised they were much, much stronger and it was an element I was not used to,” he said. “I would watch how he or she, with a flick of a tail, was completely in control. They are like humans in the way they communicate; it’s a two way thing. One makes a noise and the other responds.” What do they sound tlike? Volker obliges with a “mew mew” noise that sounds like a dying kitten. It can be a bonding experience for the whale-minders. “I took a girlfriend to a whale mission once and she had never seen a whale before,” he said. “It was mind blowing. Not only were the animals and I going through a personal experience, it also brought me and her closer. It was quite amazing…” This mission was pretty quiet”. The whales were less stressed, the weather was good and there wasn’t too large a crowd; “you get some people here who try to patronise you whether they know more or less than you. It can become a power thing.” Like all the minders, he has his own theory on way the whales beach themselves and puts it down to the short distance across the top of the horseshoe bay. The animals zigzag all over the place, lose their navigational bearings. Volker say there are those who believe Golden Bay is that “special” place blessed because it attracts whales. He’s certainly got an eye for the future of whale saving. The army brought school children to observe the rescue and Volker is sure that in 5 years they will be whale rescuers themselves. And so will he. “They are beautiful animals. My spirituality connects me with plants and animals.” (This is the guy who asks me if saveloy peel is organic before he rubs it into the earth, the same guy who finishes his coffee and talks about CFCs). “Not religion, though – spirituality.” Within himself, or part of something bigger? “That’s another story.”

I agree and pounce on three English lads, who have done the honourable thing by delaying surfing plans to be part of the experience. Richard, Richard and Paul are in their mid-20’s. Richard number one has been travelling the country since February. The closest any of them have come to whales are seals. Lots of seals in England. But Richard thought whales would be bigger, though a baby whale’s tail “sure packs a mighty punch”. Especially when you are calming one down chest deep in water and feel something between your legs. Richard acts out the scene and I agree it would have been very painful if the tail had hit higher. A surfer who plans travelling to Australia, Thailand, Europe riding on the wave of a fat redundancy cheque from home, is not the type you expect to get emotional about a whale. But he burbles: It was great, giving everything you’ve got to see your whale get out there. You don’t want to leave him until you see him go.”

I arrived after the 60-odd whales had been floated out to sea; I was standing in a sea of beached whale-minders on the grass. Face down or clutching coffees, and sausages in bread, there were lots of students, lots of surfies but despite television reports of those who flock from all over the South Island, the minders were mostly locals with understanding bosses pleased to contribute to the cause. Some of course are making money from it. Farewell Spit Visitor Centre officer Wayne Pomeroy doesn’t look too perturbed when I tell him business must be booming. “I think they are starting to blame me for the beachings now,” he says. But business is business, he says between the lines. He avoids becoming involved, even with food aid. It’s easier for the army to cook for 200, and a lot less expensive. I met the brother-in-law of the pilot who flew me to Farewell Spit: “Don’t talk to me, talk to the DOC guys; they’ve been excellent.” He pulls in a mate to take the heat instead, but half an hour later he’s telling me about the whale calves. “The worst thing was the calf alongside crying; it was a horrible noise. They know we’re there. If you left your whale alone for a while, he’d respond as soon as you got back and rubbed him”. Ah, yes, put a baby in the arms of a hardened man and his eyes light up immediately. It’s probably sobering for these minders to be reminded they are only human, not the only creatures on the planet. As Mr Gruff says: “What can you do when three tonnes of whale are coming at you?” His friend is hopeful but doesn’t believe the whales will make it far. He’s stripped off only half of his wetsuit just in case thye come back. “You can’t be there for the glory. And there’s definitely got to be one boss only. You pick your whale, stick with it: it’s not about mixing with people.”

I was sad I didn’t see a whale but I should have been glad; it meant they might be surviving. I wanted to soak up the magnetism, breathe in the beauty which has attracted the minders, maybe become addicted. I wanted to be part of the wall of people joining hands in their message, “Go back, go back, survive.” I thought of the rescuers as a sobering reminder that we’d all be better off if we came together to save ourselves the way we save whales.

Image caption: Surfers turned whale savers, from the left front clockwise, Paul Blackley and Richard Harvey from the Isle of Wight, and Richard Holmes from Cleveland in Britain.

Pilot Whale stranding

Nelson Evening Mail – Thursday, November 18, 1993.

High hopes for whale refloat

Volunteers were this morning digging trenches and preparing to refloat 43 stranded pilot whales about noon after 61 of the mammals beached at Farewell Spit late yesterday afternoon. Department of Conservation media spokeswoman Marieke Hilhorst said about 18 of the stranded whales had died overnight. The pod was a third beaching in a week in the area. Ms Hilhorst said the whales were calm and being kept wet and comfortable by about 70 volunteers working in teams. There were high hopes for the refloat because the tide was expected to be  a “very high tide”. There were fears earlier the refloat would be difficult because the whales, stranded initially well offshore, had moved right up the beach on the over night tide. A number of options would be considered if the refloat did not succeed, including waiting for the next tide and trucking whales elsewhere. Shooting distressed whales was a last resort option. Ms Hilhorst said showering weather this morning had helped the volunteers but people were suffering in the cold, wet conditions. Volunteers, who had begun arriving at the scene about 4.30am, included 20 Golden Bay High School students, army personnel, Marine Watch members and people from throughout the region. Volunteers had this morning begun digging deep trenches to try to refloat the whales. The incoming tide was expected to hit the mammals about noon or 12.30pm. Another DOC spokeswoman Kaye Stark, said the surviving whales were in remarkably good condition considering what they went through last night. “Many are bleeding from cuts caused by the shells as last night’s high tide floated them further up the beach.” The department received a call from the Farewell Spit Visitors Centre at 5.05pm yesterday reporting the stranding. Meanwhile, a steady stream of volunteers poured into the carpark this morning, clambered into wetsuits, then boarded the army trucks of the 32nd Transport Troop to drive to the rescue. They righted the whales so they would not lose their sense of balance, covered them with wet sheets to keep their sensitive skins wet, then comforted them. One Golden Bay woman in her sixties had been at the scene since 9.30 last night. A veteran of six whale strandings, her rapport with the mammals had developed so much she interacted with her charges with human songs and the clicks of “whalespeak”. Each time she made a clicking sound, “her” whales would click in response. “I come out each time I hear these beautiful creatures are in trouble. I do it because I love them, not because I want my name in the paper,” said the woman. For those attending their first whale rescue, it was an emotional scene. “He’s too young to die” sobbed Nelson teenager Bianca Shaw as she comforted “PeeWee”, a young calf only a few months old. Veteran Golden Bay rescuer Lynn Roberts criticized television coverage of the last stranding. She said a recent 60 Minutes documentary focused on Project Jonah’s ready response team and ignored the work of department staff and locals. She was concerned strandings were becoming bandwagons for organisations seeking publicity. Golden Bay rescuer Dianne Mckenna attributed her presence at each recent stranding to “a very understanding boss”. At last week’s rescues she kept rescuers filled with hot food and drink. This morning she marshalled volunteers at the Spit carpark.

Image caption: Rescuers try to move some of the stranded pilot whales at Farewell Spit this morning to give them more space.

Pilot Whale saved after stranding in New Zealand

The Press, Christchurch, Friday, November 19, 1993.

Rescuers save 43 stranded whales

Forty-three pilot whales were successfully refloated on yesterday afternoon’s high tide after stranding near the base of Farewell Spit on Wednesday night. Overnight and yesterday morning 18 whales died. Late yesterday afternoon the pod, split into two groups, was moving about 500m offshore, but moving slowly back towards Collingwood. A few boats were trying to nudge them out to sea. The whales first stranded in the shallows about 700m from the high water mark, 2km from the base of the spit. However, Wednesday night’s high tide had brought them in close to the high water mark, raising fears that the refloating would be difficult. About 100 people helped to refloat the whales, including 15 members of the Marine Watch from Christchurch, and 20 local high school students. A spokewoman for DOC on Takaka, Ms Marieke Hilhorst, said refloating had gone well compared with last week’s big stranding. A channel had been dug and the whales were “quite co-operative”. Contingencies measures were in place if the whales became stranded again, she said.

Image caption: Rescuers roll upright a whale stranded at Farewell Spit yesterday. They saved 43 whales.