Greenpeace receptionist Raechel Thomas had a nail-biting Saturday, wetsuit clad and on stand by to save a whale! Here's her story...
When I heard that Project Jonah (a whales protection group) was running Marine Mammal Medic Courses, I jumped at the chance to get involved. The course was a one day intensive down at Long Bay Beach, designed to equip people to be able to assist in saving stranded whales. New Zealand has the highest number of strandings in the world, but it also has the highest rescue success rate - 95%. Besides illness and injury, whales strand because of landforms and the tide. Regular stranding points around the world all have the same characteristics - a thin wedge of land/sand, possibly hooked around. That coupled with incoming/outgoing tides churn the sand and therefore the whales’ sonar doesn't read there is land behind it.
There was a theory component of the course which included things like the biology of whales and health and safety (of us humans too!). The hands- on component involved a life-size Minke whale, which, when filled with water, weighed 9 tonnes. From a distance it looks remarkably real; so real in fact that several people sprinted down the beach to get a look and try and help the poor stranded whale. Using the replica whale, we were taught how to place a whale on an inflatable pontoon; the rolling procedure for getting the pontoon under them, how to ensure their head and tail are the correct length with regards to overhang, and how to place the fins correctly.
Project Jonah is a world leader in stranding procedures and their pontoon is a world first. (The pontoon is like a sling with two inflatable pontoons either side - once the whale has been placed on there, you then inflate it).
At the end of my course, I felt ready to assist at a stranding, but secretly hoped it would never happen!!
Then on Saturday, just as I was contemplating what do to with my day, I got a text from Project Jonah. I was told there was Orca stranding not 5 kms from my home and that I was to stand by! I ran round in a slight panic getting my bag together and chucking on my wet suit. I was nervous as this would be my first stranding! An hour and a half later, I was still sitting in my wet suit and my ugh boots waiting for the call. I didn't end up being required for the re-floating as it was too dangerous for her and us. She was instead transported to Takapuna beach for releasing.
So, I’ve had my official practice run for the real thing. Again, here’s hoping I never have to actually put my new-found skills to use!