Strand­ings stretch DoC staff

The Northland Age - - Front Page - By Denise Piper

The Kaitaia De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion was stretched deal­ing with two dif­fer­ent whale strand­ings within three days of each other.

In the first in­ci­dent, a 30-tonne sperm whale stranded at Tok­erau Beach in Doubt­less Bay on Fri­day af­ter­noon. It died in the early hours of Sat­ur­day morn­ing.

In the se­cond in­ci­dent, a pod of rare pygmy killer whales stranded on Ninety Mile Beach on Sun­day evening. Two were put down but eight re­mained alive at the time of go­ing to press yes­ter­day af­ter­noon.

The Ninety Mile Beach strand­ing was the first recorded of pygmy killer whales in New Zealand’s his­tory. The 2.5-3.5m whales stranded on a 6km stretch of beach from Maun­ganui Bluff up to­ward Te Paki stream.

Les Bore, an Ahipara surf school op­er­a­tor who was one of the first peo­ple on the scene, thought the whales had been at­tacked by orca.

They were cov­ered in bite marks and were bleed­ing, with bloody eyes, Mr Bore said.

“Me and my friend tried to re­float them, suc­cess­fully get­ting them back into the wa­ter but they couldn’t swim prop­erly,” he said. “We tried for two hours but re­alised they must have in­ter­nal dam­age.”

But whale ex­pert Jo “Floppy” Hal­l­i­day, from Whale Res­cue, did not be­lieve the bite marks were caused by orca.

The marks were com­monly caused by other pygmy whales as they tend to “nib­ble each other like rough play” while play­ing or mat­ing, she said.

“They are a deep wa­ter ocean-go­ing whale; they are more likely a bite mark from an­other [pygmy whale] or a lover — most of them are pro­mis­cu­ous.”

Ms Hal­l­i­day was at a loss as to why they stranded but she said it was ex­tremely un­usual to find them in New Zealand wa­ters. The whales were found in Aus­tralia and to­wards the trop­ics, she said.

The whales were thought to be part of the same pod and it was pos­si­ble one had got into trou­ble or got sick and the oth­ers fol­lowed it in­shore.

The king high tide, which also caused chaos with the res­cue, could have caused con­fu­sion with the whales’ sonar, she said.

The whales were not ema­ci­ated so had not been starv­ing, Ms Hal­l­i­day said.

The phys­i­cal dis­tance be­tween the whales and Mon­day’s rough sea con­di­tions — with 1.5 me­tre swells and on­shore winds — made re­float­ing dif­fi­cult, she said.

The whales also needed time to ad­just their bal­ance, after be­ing left on their sides overnight Sun­day. Ms Hal­l­i­day was hop­ing to move the whales late yes­ter­day, then re­float them to­day.

“It’s a lit­tle bit con­cern­ing be­ing so far away from each other. By re­group­ing, it means that the peo­ple are safe as well as the whales.”

Awanui lo­cal Aaron Kem had formed a bond with one of the whales — an adult fe­male nick­named “Lucy Liu”, who was stranded near Maun­ganui Bluff.

Mr Kem was at the scene at 8am yes­ter­day and helped calm the whale, which was ini­tially thrash­ing its tail and “mak­ing bark­ing noises”.

“They said it’s formed a bond with me. I’ve been here with her the long­est so I’m go­ing to stay with her,” Mr Kem said.

See­ing the small whales alive was “great”, he said.

Mean­while, the sperm whale which died near Dick Ur­lich Drive on Tok­erau Beach, Karikari Penin­sula, had been seen swim­ming around Doubt­less Bay for the last week.

It was not known what caused its death nor if the whale strand­ings were con­nected.

But Tok­erau Beach lo­cal Robert Ur­lich was con­vinced the death was caused by mir­coplas­tics which are found in the ocean.

“It’s not just the whales but the whole of the ma­rine life, and not only the ma­rine life but the birds that feed on the small fishes, they’ve been af­fected too,” Mr Ur­lich said.

“It gets us too in the longer term — hu­mans — and it’s hu­mans that have caused it in the first place.”

The 15m, 30-tonne whale was pulled as high as pos­si­ble from the wa­ter on Sat­ur­day. Sam­ples were taken be­fore the whale was flensed.

DoC com­mu­nity ranger Jamie Werner said DoC staff had stayed with the whale 24/7 since Fri­day af­ter­noon.

PIC­TURES/DENISE PIPER

Awanui lo­cal Aaron Kem forms a bond with an adult fe­male pygmy killer whale stranded near Maun­ganui Bluff.

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