Despite a six-hour rescue attempt, Department of Conservation staff were unable to re-float a sperm whale grounded on a Far North beach.

Tuesday 11 October 2011, 9.47am

  • The whale died at 10pm last night
  • 2 DOC staff were on duty overnight keeping an eye on the whale
  • Low tide is at 2.30pm this afternoon when the whale will be moved to a suitable location for burial.
  • A 20 tonne digger and truck are on-site
  • DOC and local iwi (Ngati Kahu) are discussing the next steps regarding recovery of materials from the whale (i.e. jaw, bones) for cultural purposes and appropriate protocols surrounding disposal/burial of the mammal.
  • Whales are considered a taonga (treasure) to iwi and have high cultural value.

Monday 10 October 2011, 9.50pm

Rescuers attempt to prevent the whale from coming ashore.
Rescuers attempt to prevent the whale
from coming ashore

Despite a six-hour rescue attempt, Department of Conservation staff were unable to re-float a sperm whale grounded on a Far North beach. 

The 12-metre marine mammal grounded itself approximately 20-30 metres offshore from Coopers Beach (a popular holiday destination in Doubtless Bay, 50 kilometres south of Kaitaia) sometime this morning. 

According to DOC Incident Controller, Jonathan Maxwell, DOC staff, aided by members of the local community, battled choppy sea conditions and 20-knot, on-shore winds to prevent the whale from coming ashore.

"We had a DOC boat and the Far North Coastguard boat in the water and attempted to move the whale out of the shallow water using ropes and nets. Unfortunately a spring tide and wave conditions had moved the whale too far up the beach for us to be able to free it," Mr Maxwell added.

Rescuers are attempting to tow the whale offshore.
Rescuers are attempting to tow the
whale offshore

With darkness approaching the call was made to abandon the rescue attempt. 

Mr Maxwell says a team of DOC staff and volunteers from the local community had spent several hours in the water with the whale, orientating it before the rescue attempt was made.

"The local community was fantastic, donating ropes and nets and helping where they could. Of course, you always get a few spectators that can hamper a rescue by ignoring health and safety instructions from staff or getting too close to the operation. We understand that people are interested in what's happening. We just ask that they keep a safe distance and follow the briefings of our staff," he says. 

Mr Maxwell stressed the potential danger of getting too close to a marine mammal of that size.

"A flick of a tail or the animal rolling on someone can be fatal with a whale of that magnitude. They can weigh several tonnes, so it's like dealing with a freighter. Generally, people are great and want to help as much as possible. I think they appreciate what we're trying to do to help the whale."

According to reports, it appears that the whale has been in and around the Bay for the past two weeks, leading DOC to suspect that it may have health problems.

"It's unusual for a sperm whale to hang around a bay for that long," says Mr Maxwell. "Even during the rescue, the whale appeared to be quite lethargic." 

A team of DOC staff will keep a watch on the whale overnight and Mr Maxwell says that they will assess the situation again in the morning. However, given the condition of the whale, a happy ending was unlikely.

"Obviously we prefer to be able to successfully free stranded marine mammals. However, that is not always possible and it's important to minimise distress and suffering to the animal as much as we can.  

DOC staff were alerted to the stranded whale by a member of the public at 12.30pm today. Mr Maxwell says that DOC appreciated the promptness of the caller, as they rely on the public to be their 'eyes and ears' when it comes to distressed and threatened wildlife.

"We have a 24 hour emergency line for people to call if they come across a stranded or distressed marine mammal or other threatened native species. The number to call is 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)," says Mr Maxwell.

"The sooner we know, the sooner we can act," he added.

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