Saving the whales at Farewell Spit

Department of Conservation —  08/09/2015

DOC’s Andrea Crawford writes about a remarkable day in February spent rescuing stranded whales at Farewell Spit.

It’s Saturday, February 14, 2015. Valentine’s Day, but not the way I’d planned it. The beach at Farewell Spit is littered with big black shiny bodies.

Sixty pilot whales have stranded and I have ended up helping them, after hearing a call on the radio for volunteers.

Volunteers helping pilot whales stranded at Farewell Spit.

Pilot whales stranded at Farewell Spit

I am camping at a nearby beach with my partner, Chris, on a 2-week holiday in Nelson and Golden Bay. Hundreds of people have turned up, many from overseas, along with a big group of DOC staff and Project Jonah volunteers.

Some whales are making small movements; others lie deathly still. Their squeaks and chirps sound weak and desperate. The metallic smell of blood taints the salt air.

Our first priority is to cool them down. I am in awe of these huge, majestic animals. Chris and I pick out a big boy leaning on his side.

At first, I am wary of getting too close. I am told to stay away from his tail as it can toss you in the air and break your bones.

After a while, I talk quietly to him and stroke his warm rubbery skin, avoiding burned and blistered patches from the previous day when his pod first stranded near the same spot.

He was one of the lucky survivors rescued yesterday, only to re-strand again today.

Andrea Crawford pouring water over a stranded pilot whale.

Wet sheets to cool and protect the whale from the elements

I don’t know if I am calming him or freaking him out as it is impossible to tell what he is thinking and feeling. His eyes are closed and he is so still and quiet, I worry he may be dying. The only sign of life is the occasional puff of air and mucus from his blow hole.

Chris and I cover him with wet sheets to cool him and protect him from the sun and wind, helped by a young English tourist and a local woman.

The Englishman praises DOC and Project Jonah for their work with these animals and says he feels privileged and honoured to be allowed to help.

The woman is an old hand at whale strandings, which are common in this area, and she wonders what can be done to prevent them. We are all focused on re-floating this big fella to safety on the high tide and watching him swim away safe and sound, maybe the worse for wear.

The Project Jonah people give us buckets donated by a paint company to pour water over his flippers, fins and flukes.

Local children and volunteers helping a stranded pilot whale.

Local children helping

They remind us not to pour water near his blow hole. The Englishman digs a trench along his side and the four of us roll him upright.

It is hard on our backs; this guy weighs a tonne.

We fill pillowcases with sand to prop him up. His flipper looks cramped so we dig a hole in the sand so it can hang freely.

Volunteers digging a hole for the stranded whale's flipper.

Digging a hole for the whale’s flipper

It’s late afternoon and the tide is coming in. The whales come to life as the water reaches them and the hard work begins for us.

We push and drag our whale towards the open sea. He is anxious to get moving but we have to hold him back as the pod needs to leave as a group. He is so strong and the water is up to my neck.

Although the water is quite warm, I am shivering uncontrollably. Reluctantly, I have to leave him to taller and stronger helpers with thicker wetsuits.

Volunteers Re-floating the stranded whales. Project Jonah.

Re-floating the stranded whales

From the shallows, I watch our whale swim away. It feels like farewelling an old friend; someone who trusted me with his life.

This day on Farewell Spit opened my eyes. Caring for this whale demonstrated the beauty and wonder of nature, but also its power and cruelty.

It made me realise how lucky we are in New Zealand to have these opportunities to get so close to nature.

This story was originally published in the Otago Daily Times.

4 responses to Saving the whales at Farewell Spit


    It has really touched and reminded me so much what I felt that day. Well written.
    Here a few more photos of that day:


    I agree with Jane. A heart-warming tale, well told. Thanks for sharing it.

    Jane Hughes 08/09/2015 at 9:22 am

    Great story – well told. Thanks for telling it.