When nature reveals itself: The orca family

Department of Conservation —  16/05/2021

There are moments that stop us in our tracks, moments where a line appears between then and now, before and after. Nature provides us with such moments whether we go to escape, seek adventure, find stillness, or simply to come home to ourselves. However we show up, nature has a way of meeting us where we are. In this series, we hear stories from our people about the moment nature revealed itself and everything changed.

By Carisse Enderwick, Waikato Community Ranger

Chris Annandale at Lake Kaituna in Horsham Downs in the Waikato
📷: Carisse Enderwick, DOC

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Dylan Thomas

Now-retired ranger Chris Annandale got the call at midday on Sunday in the summer of 1996. A family of orca had beached themselves onto the shore at Aotea Harbour. Aotea is a wilderness like no other. It can be ruthless and turn on you in an instant.

“I’d had no experience of whale strandings back then” says Chris. “‘Why don’t they just dog-tucker the things?’ I’d say to my wife, Joss, while watching the evening news on TV.”

Chris was going to learn something important that day about the importance of the animals and the efforts that conservationists go to refloat marine mammals when a stranding happens.

Chris stood on the beach in the hot sun, experiencing the enormity, the overwhelming presence of these powerful animals now shipwrecked in an unforgiving wilderness after chasing stingray.

Aerial shot of Aotea Harbour in 2005
📷: DOC

It’s a haunting sight one the brain takes time to make sense of: two giant mammals, wild apex predators that belong in the sea, rendered powerless by the heavy reality of life on land, and a small calf milling in the water. The tide had fallen away and the job for Chris and the team was to keep the orca alive until it returned.

While DOC is responsible for managing whale and dolphin strandings, it is a collaborative effort between local iwi, DOC and often Project Jonah. Members of the public can and often do get involved. There are several stages to managing a stranding, the first involves immediate care of the animals to prevent animals dying, reduce stress and increase chances of survival.

On this day in 1996, Chris and the other people onsite took turns looking after the stranded bull, cow and calf, conscious of the threat of hypothermia.

Image from the archives of the orca stranding Chris attended in 1996
📷: DOC

“We dug trenches around the animals, poured water on their bodies, and did our best to keep them as a calm as possible while waiting for the tide to come back in. Volunteers cradled the calf in the water. We knew that if we let it go, the baby would swim to its mother like a homing torpedo, stressing itself and its mother even more.

“It was hard work and at one point someone noticed the cow hadn’t moved or made a sound for a while and asked, ’Is she still alive?’

“At that moment the cow exhaled loudly as if to say “Yes!”. She was hit by a wave and her body language changed. The next wave that hit her lifted her up and she pushed off the sandbar with huge force. She got back into the water and Ranger Garry, who was holding the calf at the time, released it. It wasted no time getting to its mother.”

Attention then turned to the bull, lying on the shore being buffeted by the waves. He was turned upside down by the waves twice and the team thought it was over, that there was no way he’d survive this. But he was turned over again by the water. Tilted to the side, there was enormous pressure on his pectoral fin.

Image from the archives of the orca stranding Chris attended in 1996
📷: DOC

“We had to help him shift his weight” recalls Chris “Ten weary people pushing against a tired, heavy dolphin. We tried, shoulder to shoulder with all our strength to move tip him back up.”

A strength drawn from somewhere new, somewhere that raged quietly under the skin, until the orca was tipped upright. And then a wave picked him up and he was away in the water. Chris and the team cheered and breathed, believing it to be the end of a very long day. 

Only, it wasn’t.

“We watched, hope fleeting, as the bull beached onto the sandbar again” says Chris “I thought that was it, we can’t do anymore. We were exhausted and the day was closing in on us. This incredible animal was going to perish on the sand and there was not a damned thing anyone could do about it.”

 It’s a devastating thing, the unravelling of hope.

Chris Annandale at Lake Kaituna in Horsham Downs in the Waikato
📷: Carisse Enderwick, DOC

“But then something happened, a change in the atmosphere” says Chris, thinking back.

The bull, as if drawing on something new, something that was quietly raging beneath the skin, shifted.

“I’d never seen an animal put on such a display of power, as if to say ‘No, not today’. He inched his way over the sandbar, drawing on every reserve, every bit of will he had left in him to get his 6-ton quaking body over the sandbar.

“It was unbelievable. As he reunited with his family, I knew I had witnessed something that could only be described as the incredible determination of the spirit to keep going. 

“I came home that day and my wife Joss took one look at me …”

“You’ve changed!” she said.

“Of course I’ve changed” I replied, “I got soaked”. 

“No” she said. “You’ve changed”.

And he did.

Chris says that he might not have realised it right away, but nature showed up and taught him something about those moments of weakness where we think our only option is laid before us.

“Often it’s in those moments we find our greatest strength.”

And then, like turning over the rubble from the wreckage of the day, two paths open before us.

Chris Annandale at Lake Kaituna in Horsham Downs in the Waikato
📷: Carisse Enderwick, DOC

That was the moment for Chris Annandale when he realised that he was a conservationist to the bone. Over the years Chris would go on to devote countless hours and effort towards doing his best to conserve our natural environment and the creatures that inhabit it.

For information on why marine mammals strand, the stages that are involved in a response, and how you can help, visit: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/marine-mammals/marine-mammal-strandings/

6 responses to When nature reveals itself: The orca family


    Beautiful story and thankfully one that had a ‘happy’ ending for the animals and rescuers.


    A Wonderful story!


    This is such beautiful story telling of a man and the magic of nature that changed him.


    Brilliant story and great message. Thanks for providing this inspiring tale to everyone. Just what I and probably many people needed to read.

    Peter Hallinan 16/05/2021 at 9:21 am

    All DOC blogs are interesting to read, but this one is something else again… “You lift me up where I belong…” I’m a retired educational psychologist, and this blog could be a kernel seed for a Ph D – it really is that good…


      Hi praise indeed – I felt that too. Exception writing with real power.