I saved a whale. Actual. In fact I think it is fair to say that I saved a few. 64 even.
My friend Mac came to stay for a few days. You may remember her from such stories as ‘Macs New Shoes’. Whilst doing a cruise on the Facebook on Friday, I saw some locals posting about a rather large stranding in our area. Whale strandings are very common where I live. There have been 8 in the last 10 years. Every time there has been a stranding, I have had the children in my care and automatically write off helping out due to childcare. When I mentioned in passing to Mac that there was a rather large stranding in our hood, she was all over it. Like a rash. So with a little gentle persuasion from her to make it happen ( persuasion more resembling a steamroller)..I damn well made it happen.
On Friday the 13 th of February, 198 Pilot Whales stranded on Farewell Spit in Golden Bay.By Saturday morning 103 whales had died and 70 of the surviving whales that had been refloated on the Friday evening, had restranded further to the base of the spit by the Saturday morning (Valentines Day). Mac and I arrived at about 4pm to the stranding site. DOC( Dept of Conservation) and Project Jonah ( charity organisation that specialises in strandings) were there to meet us and give us a briefing on what to expect, what to do and what to avoid doing…. eg. getting hit by their tails. They said a lot more but all I could hear was the loop track in my head “I wanna save a whale. I wanna save a whale. I wanna save a whale”. Briefing done, Mac and I went to prepare for our heroic adventure. I had my wetsuit on in a flash. Much to my frothing frustration though, Mac struggled to put on her wetsuit due to the leg of the suit suddenly being a lot smaller than normal. She soon learnt that arm holes are meant for arms. Not legs. Job done.
The whales were about 300 mtrs from the shore line, so we jogged out to them quick smart being sure to hold in our tummies and try to put an air of total comfort in our skin-tight 2nd skins. My hope was that if we were moving fast enough there would be less chance of a DOC worker throwing a sheet over me , drizzling a bucket of water over me to keep me comfortable until the high tide came in and then refloating me with the rest of the pod.
A Project Jonah Volunteer greeted us as we approached the stranded pod.We were told about 4 people to every whale. They directed us to some whales looking in need. I had expected that being so close to one of these beasts would be akin to a spiritual experiencefor me. A moment where I would look into the whale’s eyes and I would see his soul and he would see my mine and he would feel my love and I would sing to him and keep him wet and he would whale talk his gratitude to me and we would be two souls in this limitless universe, together, connected on a transcendental level, and when the high tide came in, I would gently guide him to the ocean where he would meet his pod, then he would turn back to me and say “squeak, wail, high pitch noise” which would mean “Thank you for your loving kindness. All beings are one and love is the way.Your love has saved my life and your people have saved my people. I will never forget you ,Toots the Whale Whisperer”, and I would say ” And I shall never forget you ,oh great Whale being” but I would say it in Whale speak because I am indeed the Whale whisperer.And I would fly home on my cloud of supreme compassion as the lights of heaven shine down upon me and I would have thigh gap and perky breasts.
It was not like that.
70 whales had restranded. 6 were dead that I could see on arrival. A big pink tag around their large lifeless corpse. A baby whale was thrashing and calling out for what I can only assume was its dead Mother. 100’s of people in wetsuits sat next to whales mindlessly splashing water on the large stressed beasts.Some people had been there since dawn and had done the same thing the previous day. Whales were horrifically sunburnt from the day before. Their blistered skin peeling away showing raw bleeding flesh. Blowholes shooting into the air as the whales gasped for breath. I was surrounded by large dying animals.I found a whale that had 2 people with it. He ( I am only assuming it was a he) was large and had a white saddle on his back just behind his dorsal fin. I introduced myself and starting splashing the beast with water. I made light chit-chat with the 2 other volunteers helping him while I looked around and took it all in. I had always imagined how a whale might feel. Kind of like a wet gumboot. And it did. So smooth. But to look at it up close you can see all the scratches and scars of the mischiefs of its life. Yet still soo smooth. The thing that struck me the most about the whale was that is was warm. I had never thought about whether it would feel warm or not. But it was.Of course it was. He was a mammal. At some point as the tide came in,I found myself moving my half covered arms into ‘Elvis the Whale’ to keep the chill away. Here I was trying to keep him alive and I was using his body warmth to keep the chill off my privileged arms.
I would like to say there was some kind of interspecies connection between me and Elvis. A meeting of the souls. There was not. Elvis was a large mammal trying desperately to stay alive. In an environment he had no understanding of. Listening to his fellow pod members struggling and dying. Elvis was very still. Lying next to Ralph who kept squirting me with his blowhole as he gasped for breath. No matter where I moved I was in Ralph’s firing line. Noted by a few other volunteers. I eventually just let it go and put it down to another story to tell. Whilst the smaller Ralph seemed to take a breath every 5 minutes, Elvis would take a breath more like every 10-15 mins. He was still. Not thrashing so much like many of the others. He just seemed so focussed on breathing. Just breathing. Whilst 3 of us chit chatted and laughed about Ralph and the other farting whale next to him …he just. Kept.On.Breathing. At one stage I really thought he was going to die. That he was just going give up.
At 5.25pm a Project Jonah official came over and told us that in 35 minutes it was going to be high tide and time to refloat the whales. I don’t know technical terms for tides and how they work. But I do know and did know that this high tide was not going to be a particularly high tide by high tide standards. I also knew that if we were not able to refloat these whales that night, DOC would be forced to “euthanize” them. With guns. Needless to say, at 6 o’clock…when it was high tide… SHIT. GOT. REAL!!
I vaguely recall during our briefing that Mac and I were told NOT to drag the whales during the refloating process. “GUIDE them out” they had said. Dragging can rip their bellies and other such yolk. I can assure you…that on valentines day of 2015 in a little place called Golden Bay…64 whales were DRAGGED the fuck out to sea. It was that or be shot. Now, I do the odd Les Mills weight class.And I can lift a bit of weight, I am a strong lass. In fact..Fatty Ding Dong( the gentleman caller) has \offered to challenge me to an arm wrestle as he is sure I am stronger than him. I always turn him down. I fear I might actually beat him and then be the ‘manly’ one in the relationship sadly rendering him to be the ‘Camp’one. I know he would kick my arse..and I like that he thinks otherwise. Have you ever tried to lift 3 tonne of wet mammal?!?! No matter how strong you think you are…you can never be THAT strong. To be in a space where 150-200 people + 64 giant mammals are all trying to achieve the same thing in 30 desperate life threatening minutes is an experience I can not even begin to describe. A collective of minds and will. A force of compassion that drives and unites perfect strangers do work together without even speaking at times. TO just know. It is astounding. People were dragging, pushing, heaving and shoving these whales with everything they had. There was mainly 3 of us with Elvis in these moments. The guy and girl I worked with had a sling under the front part of him. I never asked there names. peoples names were irrelevant in this moment. I had one hand behind Elvis’ dorsal fin and one hand behind a flipper. I would dig my feet deep into the ground and squat as low as I could go then on the count of 3 I would push with my legs and groan and grunt in a primal determination as they lifted the front of him. We would make progress. Little by little. All around us people were as focussed and determined and as desperate aswe were. Making progress with ‘Their” whales, little by little as we were.People would get their whale to a level of water where the whale could float and they would go and look for another whale to help push out to sea. As the whales got deeper they started talking to each other. Apparently trying to establish who the matriarch was now that so many were dead. Sharing their excitement about the water that finally enveloped them. Tails started thrashing. Blowholes started blowing. And a few volunteers got knocked over by eager whale tails. My Elvis was super chilled. Eventually we got him out to a depth where his body started taking over. Elvis was talking and moving with the rest of his pod. To hear him communicating finally was very moving for me. He was going to be fine. We were able to let him go. I reluctantly moved away to join the human chain that was forming. He began to swim away. He didn’t look back like I had dreamed.
The volunteers formed a human chain in order to deter the whales from immediatley restranding and drive the whales out to sea. A maori couple did a beautiful Karakia.It moved me to tears to hear her voice wailing in the wind, blessing these great guardians of the ocean. We watched the whales swim out to sea. Volunteers high-fived each other. They hugged. We all cheered.
Since this experience I have thought a lot about whether this is just another example of bleeding heart humans interfering with nature. There are many opinions on this matter. It did occur to me that perhaps instead of whale hunting, whale eating countries could set up a mobile canning factory, send people with the factory out to strandings and just take their meat from the freshly dead stranded whales. Seems legit.
I still don’t know if saving stranded whales is the right thing to do. What I do know is it is obviously in human nature to want to help those that are suffering. That we do put a value on the lives on all beings in one way or another.That hundreds of people from all over the world, of different ages and different expereinces all wanted the same result for these lives. That when we band together we really are able to achieve incredible things. Moving a 3 tonne mammal is doable if you want it to live enough. And there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that those whales WANTED to live too. Everything in them wanted to survive. They fought just as hard as we did. They breathed. They kept on breathing. We kept on pushing. We all won.
We watched the whales swim out to sea.
I was cold.
My feet were bleeding.
I would never know if Elvis lived or died.
I was hungry.
Elvis had left the building.
I still didn’t have thigh gap.