Vol­un­teers rally to res­cue

The Northland Age - - Front Page - By Peter de Graaf

A mas­sive ef­fort to save a pod of rare pygmy whales has had a tragic end­ing, with five of the six crea­tures re­floated on Tues­day re-strand­ing on an­other beach fur­ther north yes­ter­day.

Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion spokes­woman Abi­gail Mon­teith said the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion had been made to eu­thanase the five pygmy whales.

At edi­tion time yes­ter­day DOC said its staff and other whale res­cue ex­perts, who ar­rived at Great Ex­hi­bi­tion Bay about 11.15am yes­ter­day, would con­tinue to mon­i­tor one pygmy whale which re­mained at sea.

The mam­mals, a rare type of oceanic dol­phin, first stranded near the top of Ninety Mile Beach on Sun­day night. They were trans­ported on a con­voy of padded trail­ers us­ing forestry tracks to Rarawa Beach 60km north of Kaitaia on theother coast, where calmer con­di­tions would im­prove chances of a suc­cess­ful re­float­ing, on Mon­day evening.

More than 300 peo­ple — in­clud­ing DOC staff, lo­cals, school­child­ren, iwi and whale res­cue groups — de­scended on Rarawa Beach to help re­lease the eight whales yes­ter­day. Six made it out to sea but two were eu­thanased af­ter re­peat­edly re­strand­ing.

Great Ex­hi­bi­tion Bay is a long sweep of sand on the east coast be­tween Rarawa Beach and the en­trance to Paren­garenga Har­bour.

Emo­tions on Rarawa beach swung from eu­pho­ria to de­s­pair to cau­tious op­ti­mism on Tues­day as hun­dreds bat­tled to save the whales. On Mon­day eveningDOC had called for vol­un­teers.

Com­mu­nity ranger Jamie Werner of Kaitaia said heavy seas at Ninety Mile Beach made a suc­cess­ful re­float­ing there un­likely and dan­ger­ous, so DOC shifted the whales to the east coast..

There the whales were kept in an es­tu­ary overnight be­fore be­ing car­ried to the sea on Tues­day morn­ing. Groups of wet­suited vol­un­teers held the an­i­mals in the surf for an hour while they re­gained buoy­ancy and ad­justed to the wa­ter. Two of the pod’s dom­i­nant fe­males were placed in pon­toons and towed fur­ther out to sea to en­tice the oth­ers to fol­low.

About 10.30am on Tues­day the pygmy whales were re­leased while hun­dreds of vol­un­teers formed a hu­man chain in the shal­lows and made as much noise as pos­si­ble — shout­ing, splash­ing, even bang­ing pieces of metal to­gether — to drive them away from shore.

Cheers swept the beach as each an­i­mal was re­leased but the mood changed as it be­came clear not all was well.

Some of the pygmy whales ap­peared lethar­gic and were float­ing belly up. Two in par­tic­u­lar kept drift­ing back to the beach.

Three times res­cuers tried to re­turn the crea­tures to the sea be­fore mak­ing what Werner de­scribed as the “heart­break­ing de­ci­sion” to eu­thanase two of them.

“They were clearly the weak­est. When they started call­ing the oth­ers we made the ter­ri­ble de­ci­sion to eu­thanase them for the sake of the oth­ers.”

The vol­un­teers were given a chance to tear­fully farewell the whales be­fore Te Aupouri kau­matua Heta Con­rad re­cited a fi­nal karakia. They were screened with sheets and dis­patched with a high-pow­ered ri­fle.

When the two ma­tri­archs also tried to re­turn to shore DOC switched tac­tics, us­ing a pair of IRBs from Ahiparabased Far North Surf Res­cue to drive the an­i­mals out to deeper wa­ter.

Jo “Floppy” Halliday, North­land-based WhaleRes­cue.org, said helpers in the boats wrapped their arms around the ma­tri­archs, hugged them to the side of the boat and slowly moved them into deeper wa­ter where the rest of the pod had grouped about 100m off­shore.

All the while Wik­i­to­ria Mak­iha, from Mo­tukiore in Hokianga, re­cited karakia as she paced in the surf and im­plored the crea­tures to re­turn to the ocean.

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PIC­TURES/PETER DE GRAAF

The pygmy whales were held in the wa­ter for up to an hour be­fore re­lease to al­low them to re­gain buoy­ancy and ad­just to be­ing back in the wa­ter.Hun­dreds of vol­un­teers formed a noisy hu­man chain to dis­cour­age the crea­tures from re­turn­ing to shore.

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