The writer, photographer and tour guide gathered at a quarter past six Friday morning, their destination Farewell Spit.
The dainty, fingerlike peninsula cups the northern edge of shallow Golden Bay, one of New Zealand’s most picturesque natural scenes and a premier place to witness the sun’s rise.
It was still dark when the trio boarded a bus and set out across the sand, magazine editor Cheree Morrison and photographer Jane Ussher hoping to capture the beach’s raw wake-up call in words and images.
Then their guide slowed the bus and gestured outside. “Your story,” he said, “is about to change.”
Whales, crying and sighing, lay stranded on the beach before them, Morrison told The Washington Post. At first there seemed to be a couple hundred, but as the sun inched further from the horizon they realized the immensity of the devastation – 416 long-finned pilot whales beached and helpless.
“It was just red and pink skies and just whales as far as you could see,” Morrison said. “It was really haunting.”
Ussher quickly realized the power of the scene before them and started snapping pictures.
Morrison sat on the bus and wept.
“Your first instinct was to run to them and help in any way possible,” she said, but they were only three people, completely unprepared.
“There’s nothing you can do,” the guide, who notified authorities, told them.
What they didn’t know at the time was that New Zealand’s Department of Conservation was already mobilizing a rescue effort. The night before, officials were notified that a pod of whales had wandered into the shallow bay, but decided it was too dangerous to venture out in the dark, the department said in a statement. A swift flip of the tail by such a large creature can cause serious injury to a human.
Soon, busloads of volunteers via the department and Project Jonah, a charity that helps marine animals, appeared, spilling onto the beach to render aid.
“They arrived by camper, by car, by foot . . .” Morrison later wrote for her magazine, NZ Life and Leisure. “Young, old, local, international. Some who had seen this before, others who wished they never had.”
Together, those assembled tried to flip the stranded whales upright, looking for signs of life through the twitch of a tail or the puff of a blowhole. But 276 of the marine mammals died, many before the sun had even risen.
Deep water species with highly evolved social structures are the most likely to become stranded in groups, according to Project Jonah, and in New Zealand this happens most to the long-finned pilot whale. It’s the species’ strong sense of pod loyalty that can lead to its demise.
A common scenario: One or two whales from the pod stray and get stranded, then send out a distress signal. Other pod members swim to help or mill just off shore, like supportive onlookers. The tide recedes out from under them.
“Soon the whole pod will become stranded,” according to the Jonah Project.
Morrison and Ussher left the scene midmorning, but the rescue mission continued on into the day and night. As many as 500 volunteers showed up.
At 10:30 a.m., the rescuers staged what is called a refloat, urging more than 100 of the surviving whales back out into the bay during high tide, according to the department’s statement. The effort was “partially successful,” officials said. Approximately 50 whales swam free, but another 80 or 90 re-stranded on the beach.
Volunteers offered stern instructions to the whales – “come on buddy,” wrote Morrison, “shove over mate” — and joined in soothing song in hopes to calm them down. They tended to the whales until nightfall with water and wet sheets, officials said, and formed a human chain in the bay to prevent the freed whales from beaching again.
Volunteers will return Saturday morning to restart their rescue efforts and at lunchtime attempt another refloat. Stranded whales can survive for several days as long as they are kept cool and wet, Andrew Lamason, Department of Conservation operations manager for Golden Bay, told RadioNZ.
Peter and Ana Wiles were among the first volunteers on site, reported news outlet Stuff.
“It is one of the saddest things I have seen,” Peter Wiles told Stuff, “that many sentient creatures just wasted on the beach.”
Ana Wiles said they were able to usher a few adult whales into the water. Their babies followed.
“It makes you feel good but it is very sad as well,” she told Stuff.
Friday’s incident was the third largest recorded whale stranding in New Zealand since the country began collecting data in the 1800s, according to the department. One thousand whales beached on the Chatham Islands in 1918, and 450 were found stranded in Auckland in 1985.
On Friday, some were critical of the department’s decision to delay rescue efforts overnight. Former New Zealand Whale Rescue coordinator Steve Whitehouse told the New Zealand Herald he had observed 2,000 strandings and said the danger could have been mitigated.”
“I can honestly say I have been out there hundreds of times at night,” Whitehouse told the Herald.
The department stood by its strategy, though, and volunteers seemed to understand the competing pressures.
“It’s always a heartbreaking thing,” volunteer Kyle Mulinder told RadioNZ. “Nobody ever wants to leave any live whales on the beach. But, hey mate, being in the water with a whole bunch of whales thrashing around you is dangerous enough, let alone at night.”
Department of Conservation ranger Mike Ogle told RadioNZ they’ll begin again at first light.
“We’ll be here and we’ll find out where they are,” Ogle said. “And the most optimistic scenario is they just swim away. We’ve had that happen before and it’s beautiful. But we’ll just have to wait and see.”