Golden Bay, New Zealand, February 12, 2017.
It was a very sad, a very emotional day. Being a journalist is not a job, it is a passion and it is a lifestyle. You can’t never stop anymore to tell stories.
I got word about 400 stranded whales in a place nearby where I was travelling. At Golden Bay at the far north west of New Zealands South Island. A collective suicide, a longing for death? Who knows? We drove there to see and report about the amazing work of a small New Zealand organization, called Project Jonah.
The beach was already closed to the public. As journalists we were allowed to enter and a vehicle of the Department of Conservation (DOC) brought us to the site. What I saw was heartbreaking. Wandering through hundreds of dead whale bodies, talking to people, taking pics. No, I won’t show to you the photos with the inflated bodies, the open intestines.
I remember the whale pup who died beside his mother. And he had a smile on his face as so many others had. I have to document the amazing work of Lydia and Shirley from Project Jonah as well as of Brent from the Department of Conservation (DOC), who made our visit possible, and all the others who give almost everything for rescuing.
I will write about the mammals who got shot yesterday because there were no chances for them to survive. And I will write about those whales who made it back to the open sea, with the help of the activists, their boats and their pontoons. And hopefully, out there the matriarch whale will call the rest, with her sound, a very special one, asking all the others, the survivors, to move back in the right direction for survive. Not sure, if it works out. Hopefully! Only 100 from 400 whales survived. The pictures are in my mind for ever.
Lydia Uddstrom, a veterinary doctor from Auckland and member of Project Jonah since 2010, got the call last Friday (February 10, 2017) at 4.30 am. Within one hour she was ready, asked her boss for a leave and took the next plane down to Nelson on New Zealand’s South Island. Volunteers from all over the country arrived by this time and together they drove another 2 hours to Golden Bay. On the isolated beach of Farewell Spit happened just one night before the worst tragedy ever in New Zealands’s whale stranding history. „It was heartbreaking to see these big and powerful animals in such a weak situation. We tried to keep them cool, calm and comfortable“, Lydia says. Together with other volunteers she worked on the site from morning to late evening, between despair and hope. „We found here the most incredible people. Many volunteers helped. Even tourists and backpackers came and looked after us. They provided us with food and water. A farmer nearby offered us places for sleep.“
Brent Hartshorne from the Department of Conservation (DOC) works with the phenomena of whale stranding for the past 15 years. Even after such a long time it is heartbreaking. „Especially when I see the young ones on the beach. It is a real tragedy. We had to euthanize 20 whales today by shooting them in the head. We could not move them back into the sea. Impossible, they were not calm enough.“ Normally there are one or two whale stranding every year at the beach of Golden Bay. But no more. What happened now is unbelievable, there are no explanations for this collective suicide. Maybe the matriarch (female leader) was sick and swam to the beach. In this case all members of the herd were following her.
Shirley Keith, a volunteer at Project Jonah, came all the way from Christchurch to help. She explained to me that 400 whales in total stranded, 300 died, 100 animals got floatet back into the sea with the help of boats and pontoons, 19 of them came back to the beach where the refloating began again …
„We cover them with wet towels, we try to calm them, yes, some of us are singing to the whales. We make sure that their blowholes are open. That’s all what we can do, beside pushing them ashore, floating them out. They are such gentle animals, they understand and they show us what they like and what they dislike. When somebody of us tries to hard, they push us away.“ Shirley smiles. „And we are happy when we can listen to the female matriarch out there in the open sea. She calls the others and we do everything that the rest can follow.“
More about the work of Project Jonah here! All the volunteers pay the flight or transport to the sites by themselves as well as for meals and accomodation. The work of the organization is financed only by donations.
Photos: Enric Boixados
My article about the Whale stranding in The Huffington Post (in German): Das letzte Lächeln der Wale