Beached whales – and bravery…

First, an early morning recollection from the day before: a friend describing a short story which captured the pitiful cries of whale calves separated from their beached mothers.

Then this: on a country road where the occasional car usually dawdled, most now zipped along at highway speeds.Something was up on that road across from our estuary, and radio news confirmed it. That blurry recollection had now become reality, and a gruesome one. For on that same road, a digger chugged along as fast as it could.

Four hundred whales had beached themselves near Puponga Beach – 75% of them dead. As more swam into the beach’s shallow waters, many were re-floated by one of their most powerful relations, and enemies – humans.

On that first day, grim-faced Golden Bay hippies and local residents climbed into their wetsuits in a farm park rapidly filling with cars. Others like freedom campers rushed to the beach in swimwear or less, and were met by a constant, chilling wind. It didn’t deter them. They had all raced here for the same reason: to save as many of the whales as they could.

Some didn’t wait for the Project Jonah briefings. If they had, they might have learned the dangers of being a Good Samaritan to whales, big or small. Just outside the gate leading to the beach, a Project Jonah staffer outlined some of these: keep away from whales’ mouths; avoid getting close to their tails which could flip up and cause serious injury; make room between the whales and their own bodies. (Adult whales weigh over a ton).

Amongst all of this advice came one last tip: to look after themselves, because this would be emotionally and physically draining work, beginning with a two kilometre trek along the beach.

And yet they kept at it that first afternoon and until night fell – and the next day, and the next. They ignored that wind as night fell, wept over the losses and fought to keep the remaining whales alive.

When the tide came in, they met it up to their necks, forming a human barrier in an attempt to prevent more whales reaching the deadly shallows.

This was the largest-ever whale beaching on the mainland and some believe it was the biggest rescue effort. So at the same gate volunteers passed through as they rushed to rescue, shouldn’t a plaque be erected commemorating their dedication and humanity?

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.