The Lonely Campers: Save the Whales

We reunited with Tom and Amy once again in a campsite next to a Forrest, Tom’s birthday was in two days so we were heading towards Motueka. We had been defeated a lot recently with regards to a successful camp fire, so we spent a good two hours drying out lots of wood on what little fire we could catch alight. Eventually we had a good fire, a goon of wine (basically a sack of wine, which also happens to be my favourite medieval insult) and great food. The morning brought a drive and a venture through the hippie town of Motueka. We did a little bit of food shopping before heading to see some sights and get a space at a popular campsite facing a beach. We got our first really good weather in a while and decided to relax in our great campsite spot. Despite the crazy wind, we successfully made an amazing stir fry and spent the evening chatting and playing cards. 

Tom’s birthday brought vegan pancakes and chocolate cake, as well as a pass the parcel made with all the luxuries we had taken from our business class upgrade. Some top presents in there.

Following our immense breakfast, we went back into town for birthday beard trims. Whilst Sophie was hoping for the whole lot to be taken off, I went for 19th/20th Century French look, pointed beard and moustache. It was an improvement on the failed attempt to ‘beard up my life’, which is probably the title to Spice Girls parody on YouTube. Following this we headed to the birthday destination, the true land of the hippies, Takaka. A pilgrimage of sorts for free love. I don’t have anything personal against hippies, it’s just the uniforms that baffle me. You have to carefully select your tie-dyed attire and then learn a whole new set of social skills based around 15 minute hello/goodbye hugs and a physical musk that is scary at times. 

We got our spot in the free campsite and sat down to eat a vegan curry takeaway Amy and Tom had managed to find. It was a lovely meal, watching lots of hippies meander past all tripping on mushrooms. 

We woke early in the morning to receive news of a Pilot Whale stranding not too far from our current location at Farewell Spit. Tom came straight over to tell us the news and decided that we were heading there. When we arrived the early response team of volunteers and members of Project Jonah were in wetsuits up to their necks forming a human chain. This was in an attempt to prevent the Whales they had managed to save from beaching again. Whilst we waited we were briefed on what to do should they beach again and informed of the 300+ dead Whales that currently lay dead on the shore. We were told as a big part of their brain was social, pods would often re-strand as they waited in the bay for the Whales now dead on the shore. Whales beach there around 4 times a year, usually just a small pod, this was the largest stranding in New Zealand’s history. As the Spit went out for 5Km nearly all at the same depth, one Whale would come into shore and send out a distress call, this brought the whole pod into investigate and subsequently get caught out by the fast-moving tide. The Department of Conservation used to shoot the stray Whale that came into shore to prevent such beachings, but public outcry had changed that. They now deal with the consequences instead of preventing it, there were plenty of theories circulating as to why the Whales become so distressed and confused to beach, from nuclear submarines to suicide pacts in protest of climate change… 

Sadly, by 12pm the tide was out again and 100 Whales were beached. We first had the harrowing walk past all of the dead and slowly inflating whales. Then it was each person to a Whale, ensuring their fins weren’t buried (they get cramp), they had a steady stream of water over them (even slight sun caused their skin to blister) and to keep them calm by talking or singing to them. It was such a strange experience, we were all shivering in the cold with normal clothes on, but we had a job to do and that seemed to get us through the conditions. The Whales seemed acutely aware of what was going on, the relaxed, older Whales would close their eyes and relax whilst the babies would be panicking. One large Whale appeared particularly distressed and when we moved an equally distressed baby next to it, the adult and baby completely relaxed. Once more people had arrived I managed to find a shovel and was helping digging out all the bigger Whales laying on their sides. Sophie was with a baby several hours that had since become used to her voice and relaxed a lot. 

When the tide started to come in we found out just how attached the Whales had become to us, Sophie’s baby was thrashing around as soon as she stood up to go. But the department of conservation wouldn’t let anyone stay in the water due to how fast the tide came in and that it was now dark on the beach. We left that evening hoping they would get away. 

The next day they had beached again, we were notified at about 6am to head down to the beach. The Whales were in a lot of distress, with many of them on their sides. When we began putting water on their bodies they flinched as their skin was already blistered and the sun had only just come up. The tide came in really quickly and as there weren’t many people to help some of the Whales were drowning on their sides. There was less than a person to a Whale so once the Whale was upright and stable me and a few others started trying to lift the rest up. This was the most difficult part, seeing these massive creatures in such helpless distress. 

Once the water was just past our waist we could begin to guide the Whales out. The department of conservation had picked the biggest Whale and put it onto a pontoon far out in the bay, this was in the hope that it would guide the others out once they were free. The Whale I was leading kept flipping onto its side, as it was too shallow to fully swim, and stretched out its fins and muscles. She wouldn’t head out to Sea though, only once a baby came and eventually joined her would she swim out. It was such an amazing moment after such an exhausting couple of days. It may just be my natural tendency to believe in some sort of spiritual connection but she was definitely looking at me every time she flipped on her side to swim and stretch. We went to a campsite with hot showers and laundry to await what we thought was the inevitable news that they had re-stranded. By 5pm it was confirmed 80/100 of the pod had successfully made it out to sea but we were again warned of a possible re-stranding the following day. The next morning we went down for an update and we were informed that the rest of the Whales had been successfully floated out with the tide. We were all relieved and ready for a big dinner and some warm clothes!

Until the next time…


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