Saturday, September 25, 2010

Screams of dying whales haunt Far North rescue

The Northern Advocate: Screams of dying whales haunt Far North rescue
Rescuers struggled in soft sand and against the ferocious sting of windblown sand to reach whales beached in a mass stranding on one of Northland's most remote beaches.

Joyce Munns, manager of nearby Waitiki Landing Holiday Park, said she will never forget the sound of the dying whales' "high-pitched screams".

Yesterday's stranding at Spirits Bay, 90km north of Kaitaia and between Cape Reinga and North Cape, was even bigger than last month's at Karikari Beach. Again, it involved pilot whales.

Atrocious weather conditions combined with crashing surf meant rescuers faced a hard job to save the whales from drowning or being dashed against rocks. Some of the whales had to be euthanised because of their injuries.

The remaining whales were due to be transported by truck to Rarawa Beach this morning in a desperate attempt to save their lives.

Volunteers from Project Jonah, Far North Whale Rescue, and other DoC offices in Northland and Auckland, along with members of the local Te Hapua community put in a long night to help keep the surviving whales alive.

"They will be lifted up with big nets on to the back of trucks with straw or hay loaded on them," Project Jonah chairman Mark Simpson said.

It was not clear how many trucks would be involved in the move but more help from the public would be needed throughout the day.

Advertisement"More whales are still coming in. Pilot whales have very strong social bonds and they try to help each other so more keep getting stuck," Mr Simpson said last night.

Ms Munns said she and other helpers felt useless against the furious weather conditions and the inevitability that the whales they could see "bobbing around" beyond the surfline would also strand. Many did.

About 6pm, Ms Munns went home, unable to stay with other rescuers for the long night time vigil of trying to shift the whales above the surf line and keeping them wet.

The alarm was raised at 11.30am when 32 pilot whales were reported stranded. By 2pm, 74 whales were stranded along a 2km stretch of beach. Of those, 49 were still alive. During the afternoon only nine had been refloated.

Kaitaia area manager Jonathan Maxwell said considerable effort and manpower will be required to save so many whales, with up to five people required per whale. Anyone who can help is urged to report to Spirits Bay-Kapowairua campground, with wetsuit, warm clothing and wet weather gear, he said.

Human safety was the number one priority, so careful planning and co-ordination were crucial, Mr Maxwell said.

The stranding at Karikari Beach, just a month ago on August 20, involved 58 pilot whales ranging from newborn calves to fully-grown adults.

Forty-three were already dead when found on the isolated beach; another six died during the rescue attempt and nine were refloated the following day at Matai Bay.

Tutukaka based marine conservationist Wade Doak said it was unlikely the answer to why the second stranding occurred in the same region will be found.

"There are places that are recurring stranding sites, like Farewell Spit, but the Far North coast is not known for frequent strandings," Mr Doak said.

He has swum with stranded whales and dolphins when their echo-sounding capabilities have not worked on a flat, shallow seabed. He said says people also become disoriented on flat, shallow seabeds when they can not use their vision to locate landmarks.

"Whales are social mammals and won't abandon the rest of the pod.

"While that works in their favour much of the time, this kind of situation proves it can be detrimental to the pod's well-being, too," he said.

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