Archived content: This media release was accurate on the date of publication. 


Follow DOC's rescue efforts to save a pod of pilot whales stranded yesterday at Spirits Bay, approximately 90km north of Kaitaia.

Date:  23 September 2010

As at 9.30am this morning, rescuers have been able to keep 24 pilot whales alive and well overnight, after moving them to safety before dark last night.

A team of 97, made up of Department of Conservation staff from Northland and Auckland, Project Jonah, Far North Whale Rescue, Te Hapua residents and volunteers have worked through the night to keep the animals cool, wet and comforted. Sadly, one juvenile died overnight.

DOC operations manager on site, Rory Renwick, said during the night the team was scaled down to one person per whale, allowing some people to rest, although others had worked throughout the night.

Rory described the team as ‘tired but coping.’

Fresh volunteers and staff have arrived this morning, meaning a full change over of personnel, giving the overnight crew a chance to rest and recuperate.

Mr Renwick says today’s efforts will be concentrated on moving the whales into the lagoon at Spirits Bay, ready for transportation. At present, the whales are spread across a 5km stretch of beach. Lifting equipment, diggers and trucks will be used to move the animals. 

With 20 knot winds and one and a half to two metre swells, it’s not possible to refloat the whales at Spirits Bay at present. The Department is considering the best options for the whales. At this stage, the plan is to transport the animals tomorrow to Rarawa beach. However, staff will be monitoring the weather conditions continually and reassessing plans to ensure the best outcome. 

Mr Renwick described the whales as in good conditions.

“Their eyes are open, and they are alert and aware of what’s happening which is a very good sign,” he said.

When the whales were first assessed late yesterday morning, DOC believed there were 74 whales. However, with the sea conditions, it has been impossible to accurately assess numbers. As of this morning, there were less than a dozen dead animals on the beach, along with the 24 live animals. An unknown number of whales were in the water. 

With the operation expected to last through today and into tomorrow as well, more volunteers were needed. Anyone with a wetsuit and warm clothing, who is able to come and help are asked to go straight to Spirits Bay where the team on site can put them to good use to give the whales as best a chance at survival as possible. If they are planning to stay overnight, being able to sleep in their vehicle or bringing a tent would be a good idea. Experience is not necessary, as there are trained personnel on site.

DOC’s Community Relations programme manager in Kaitaia, Carolyn Smith, said the support from the public and community had been fantastic. Te Reo Mihi Marae, in the nearby township at Te Hapua had been opened up by the locals as a sleeping area and catering point, providing much needed food and drinks for the troops on the beach.

Local school children from Te Hapua had been on the beach with their teachers helping yesterday. Some of the students, 13 and 14 year old boys, had been so moved by their experience with the whales, they had been in tears. 

Ms Smith said the opportunity for young people to engage in such a personal way with wild animals was amazing. 

“These experiences can leave an impression for life. In fact many conservationists relate their love for their environment to personal experiences they had with nature growing up,” said Ms Smith

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Update: Wednesday 22 September 10.15pm

Whale rescuers will keep overnight vigil of stranded pilot whales

Teams of volunteers and Department of Conservation staff will be working throughout the night to try to save the survivors of a pod of pilot whales that have been stranding themselves on Spirits Bay throughout the day.

Over 80 people have now gathered at the remote Far North beach, working in what DOC’s operations manager on site, Patrick Whaley, describes as ‘absolutely awful conditions.’

“It’s a mammoth effort for all involved. We’re battling huge waves and strong surf, so we’ve had to be very careful about how we manage this, as human safety is our top priority,” said Mr Whaley.

By nightfall, the team had managed to move 20 whales out of the tide and up onto the beach, using diggers and lifting frames.

The whales are stranded over a 5 km stretch of beach, with many being washed up on rocks, or being tossed in the huge waves, then being dragged back out to sea, only to re-strand repeatedly.

Mr Whaley says the conditions make it very difficult to accurately assess numbers, but at least 20 are alive, with another 20 confirmed dead. Among the whales are 2 or 3 very small juveniles.

Teams will be rostered on and off to care for the mammals overnight and into the next day. Lights have been set up for each group, with plenty of hot food and drinks on hand to keep people as comfortable as possible. A full moon tonight is an added bonus for the teams.

DOC’s Kaitaia Community Relations Manager, Carolyn Smith, says the Department has been absolutely overwhelmed by the amazing support they’ve received from the public. 

“We’ve been asking radio stations to broadcast our need for volunteers and the public response has been incredible. DOC’s hotline has been inundated with calls from people offering to come and help,” she said. 

Ms Smith said that at present they had 35 DOC staff on site, along with 30 Project Jonah volunteers, some from as far afield as Auckland. The remaining numbers are made up of local Far North Whale Rescue volunteers, Te Hapua residents and others who have come to help.

“We already have teams lined up for tomorrow. I guess this is an example of how captivated many of us are with these intelligent and beautiful creatures, that people are willing to give up their time to help them,” Ms Smith said.  

The reasons why whales strand is still a mystery. One theory is that a sick or injured animal may strand itself, and because pilot whales are such interconnected, social creatures, which live in tightly connected family groups, they will follow each other despite the danger. Another theory is that on long, shallow gradually inclining beaches, they may become disorientated and not realise they are getting too close to shore until it’s too late.

Anyone who comes across a stranded or injured marine mammal should contact the Department of Conservation as soon as possible on 0800 362 468.

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Te Hiku / Kaitaia Office
Phone:   +64 9 408 6014
Fax:   +64 9 408 6019
Address:   25 Matthews Ave
Kaitaia 0441
Postal Address:   PO Box 569
Kaitaia 0441
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