A massive community effort ended in group hugs and cheers on Ohope Beach east of Whakatane early this afternoon as a stranded pygmy sperm whale headed safely out to sea.
The 3 m whale was found beached at around 7.15 am and by 8 am locals had built a bund around the animal, started a bucket line and erected a shade canopy.
An estimated 100 people were at the scene helping with buckets, spades, refreshments and sunblock throughout the five hours it took to ready the whale for refloating.
A Department of Conservation specialist marine mammal stranding team arrived around noon and after an assessment of its condition informed the crowd the whale was strong enough to warrant a refloating attempt.
Following a karakia from Ngati Awa kaumatua Pouroto Ngaropo, a team of about a dozen carried the whale into the surf and after a few minutes rocking to restore its swim balance it swam free.
Two kayakers soon lost track of the whale as it headed straight out to sea.
Department of Conservation incident manager Fiona Hennessey said the result was a fantastic one and really came down to the volunteer effort of the Whakatane community who stepped up in force.
"They did all the right things and the result really is a great reward for it," Ms Hennessey said.
The whale showed no signs of any contact with oil from the stricken Rena cargo ship and the cause of its stranding remains unknown.
Pygmy sperm whales are not uncommon on New Zealand beaches but strandings are rare on Ohope Beach.
Ms Hennessey said DOC staff and others involved in beach surveillance as part of the Rena operation will keep an eye out for it in the coming days but at last sighting it looked like a very happy outcome - for the whale and those rejoicing on Ohope Beach."