Kia ora koutou,
It was May the 1st 2021 when I attended one of the most exciting courses I have ever been to, the Marine Mammal Medic course ran by Project Jonah. It was a one-day course, with the first half of the day focusing on theory and the second half applying the theory we learnt into the real world of New Zealand ice cold waters. In this article, I would like to share important information and provide a necessary guide for the best way to rescue stranded whales and dolphins (based on current knowledge), no matter where you are in the world.
Why am I doing this?
I have seen way too many videos on social media with people trying to rescue stranded marine mammals in the most horrific ways yet being cheered for with extremely positive comments and words of encouragement. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely amazing and hopeful to see people with good hearts, dedicated to help these sentient beings. But having a good heart is not enough unfortunately, knowledge is also essential.
Please watch below examples first before you continue reading.
There are two fundamental issues with these examples:
- I know that these people mean well and have their heart in the right place, however they unfortunately lack the necessary knowledge to successfully refloat the stranded animals and can often cause more harm than good. Once the animal is back in the water, we don’t see the consequences of our actions as that’s where all the videos usually end. We can only assume and hope that the animal survived. When you incorrectly refloat a whale or dolphin, their chances of survival decrease dramatically.
- These videos serve as a bad example to others who will think that it’s okay to help stranded animals in the way they see in these videos. We praise the action but ignore the consequences and unfortunately in the world of social media, these “heroic” videos spread faster than the speed of light.
The aim of this article is to provide you with a good understanding of what happens during a stranding, what the potential hazards are (for you and for the whales and dolphins) and how to avoid them and good basic whale ‘first aid’ knowledge.
About Project Jonah
In 1974, Project Jonah began the anti-whaling movement in New Zealand. Their rally call to ‘save the whales’ was embraced by ‘kiwis’ from all walks of life and in 1975, the New Zealand Government took its first steps against whaling by announcing an import ban on all whale products.
Fuelled by this victory, they then got stuck into a much wider campaign; to encourage the New Zealand Government to return to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), not to hunt whales, but to defend them. In 1976, New Zealand returned to the IWC – where today they remain one of the most vocal advocates for whale conservation in the world.
Whales (tohorā) are marine mammals. Like all mammals, they are warm-blooded and breathe air. They also give birth to live young calf and nurse them with milk. Whale calves are born underwater. Delivery often occurs quickly but can sometimes take hours, so calves are normally born tail first to prevent them from drowning during birth. Whales also live in complex social structures and congregate in social groups known as pods.
Whales, dolphins and porpoises belong to the mammalian order of Cetacea and are referred to as cetaceans. The name cetacean comes from the Latin word cetus which means ‘a large sea creature’. Currently, there are approximately 88 species of cetaceans worldwide.
Like many animals, whales interact through body language. But their main way of communication is through sound. Humpback whales, also known as the ‘singing’ whales, have the largest repertoire of sounds in the animal kingdom, ranging from audible cries and squeaks to ultrasonic clicks far beyond our range of hearing.
Possible causes of strandings
Strandings are complex events and there are many reasons why whales may strand. In most cases the exact cause is unknown but any one of the following factors, or usually a combination of them, can be the cause. Much is still unknown about this natural phenomenon.
- Old or sick – old whales may find it difficult to keep up with their pod or resist heavy swells or inshore currents. Whales can also suffer from several diseases which can leave them weak and disoriented, or with impaired echolocation causing them to strand. Calves or old adults may also be malnourished due to a shortage of food caused by overfishing or large volumes of plastic in their gut.
- Injured – whales that escape net entanglements or are hit by vessels may sustain serious injuries. Underwater explosions caused by sonar, seismic testing or underwater sea quakes can have a devastating impact on whales. These loud explosions can damage their hearing and affect their ability to communicate, hunt and navigate.
- Navigational errors – when chasing prey whales may accidentally beach themselves or some whales come too close to shore to avoid predators, such as orca. Gently shelving and sandy beaches may not reflect echolocation signals back to the whale, leading them to believe they are in deeper water. Some unusual weather patterns, particularly electrical storms, may also cause whales to strand through navigational error.
- Strong social bonding – the strong social bonding of some species of whales can cause mass strandings. Whales that strand in groups are usually oceanic (deep water) species with highly evolved social structures. Whatever the reason for the initial stranding, the strong social bonds of these animals can draw the rest of the pod in. The most common pattern with mass strandings is that one or two whales will initially strand and send out distress calls and members from their pod may attempt to help or mill slightly offshore. A receding tide will then catch these animals out and soon the whole pod can often become stranded.
Strandings in New Zealand
New Zealand has one of the highest cetacean stranding rates in the world. On average, approximately 300 dolphins and whales strand each year. Mass strandings also occur and can involve hundreds of animals at a time with one of the most infamous examples being Farewell Spit in Golden Bay. So, why so many strandings?
New Zealand has a long, contorted coastline. Deep water comes close to shore in many places and shallow beaches with tidal extremes provide areas where whales can swim at high tide but can get caught at low tide. Because New Zealand spans a wide range of ocean waters, from the subtropical in the north to the sub-Antarctic in the south, many whales pass New Zealand's coast.
Depending on where you are in the world, the stranding rates will vary between none to a large number. It is however always good to know how to help and what to do in such scenarios.
Now, let us get to the nitty gritty and see how you should proceed when you encounter a cetacean stranding.
Reporting a stranding
If you are the first to discover a stranding, call the relevant authorities of the country that you are in. In New Zealand, that would be Department of Conservation (DOC), Whale-Rescue or Project Jonah. DOC is a government agency responsible for managing strandings in New Zealand and governing the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1978). They are ultimately responsible for the welfare of all marine mammals in New Zealand, therefore responsible for the welfare of all stranded cetaceans.
These are the emergency contact numbers for New Zealand:
- DOC stranding hotline: 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468)
- Whale-Rescue stranding hotline: 0800 SAVE WHALE (0800 7283 94253)
- Project Jonah stranding hotline: 0800 4 WHALE (0800 4 94253)
- If all else fails DIAL 111 and inform Police.
I would strongly encourage you to find out which authorities in your own country or country that you are currently in would be the first point of contact in case of a stranding discovery. Once you find out, save that number to your phone.
Now, before phoning in make a thorough evaluation first. The more information you can provide, the better informed the decision and response of the relevant authorities will be.
Assessing the situation:
- Number of animals – How many have stranded? Are they all on the beach, or are there whales grounded in the water or milling out at sea?
- Species – When your adrenaline is pumping, it can be hard to identify the species, so just describe the animals. How big are they? What colour are they? Do they have any markings or colour patterns? Do they have a dorsal fin?
- Condition – Are they alive or are they dead? Can you see any obvious injuries?
- State of the tide – Is the tide high or low? Is it incoming or outgoing?
- Sea and weather conditions – Is the sea calm or rough?
- Access problems – Is the beach easily accessible? Will the authorities be able to get equipment down the scene? Is the area only accessible by a boat?
- Audience – Are there people or dogs on the scene? Has anyone already called for help? If so, who did they call?
When you phone in provide below details:
- Name and phone number (adrenaline might be high and people tend to forget to provide their phone number, making it difficult for authorities to call them back).
- Your location, directions to the site and any points of reference.
- Give full evaluation of the stranding, including what time you discovered it.
- You then might be asked to stay by the phone or return to the whale to begin basic first aid.
Alive or dead?
To ascertain if an animal is alive, watch to see if the animal takes breath, if there are no signs of breathing, gently touch the edge of the blowhole, if no response, very gently touch the edge of the eyeball, if no response is seen, the whale is most likely dead.
The five stages of a stranding rescue response
1. Immediate Care
Aim: to prevent more animals dying, reduce stress and increase chances of survival by keeping them cool, comfortable and calm.
- Never drag a whale by its tail and stay clear of the tail as it can cause serious injury. Never roll a whale back to sea and don’t use fins and flippers as levers, as they can be easily fractured and dislocated. Whales will also panic when upside down.
- Cover animals with light-coloured wet sheets and begin gently bucketing water onto them. Do not cover the blowhole or pour water into the opening (to prevent this, wait until the animal has taken a breath before pouring). Concentrate on flippers and flukes. Whales get hot very quickly when they strand. If they are not cooled down, they will overheat and die.
- Do not cover the whale’s eyes and sit or stand directly in front of the whale’s head. Try and position yourself where the whale can see you.
- If an animal is on its side: try to get the whale upright by digging a shallow trench parallel to the belly, remove sheets, and gently roll the animal into the trench. Ideally use at least 4-6 people. Keep flippers tucked downwards into sides, and once the whale is upright, dig small holes for the flippers to hang freely into once upright. If the whale is too big or suctioned into wet sand, do not overexert or cause injury to yourself or others.
- To keep animals calm, avoid loud noises and don’t shout instructions to others, keep dogs and small children away and make no unnecessary movements. Stress can kill a whale just as quickly as overheating.
In the first picture below pay attention to the big air bubble by the dorsal fin. Air inside these bubbles heats up quite fast and can cause blisters on whale's skin, so it's important that you adjust the sheets to remove any large air bubbles as soon as possible.
Aim: to move animals to deeper water, to bring scattered animals together
- Ensure all people are aware to avoid the tail and the mouth over the next stages, as these are powerful and can cause injury.
- Moving the animals generally begins when water is about knee deep or more around the animals.
- Only people with wetsuits should be involved from this stage on.
- Coincide your re-floating efforts with waves for increased buoyancy.
- Tarpaulins, slings or pontoons may be used to shift smaller animals, under the guidance of DOC (or other authority relevant to your country).
- Avoid moving animals over rough surfaces when not fully buoyant as their skin is much more sensitive than ours and can be very easily damaged.
- Do not tow animals by fins, flippers or tails. Past attempts to do so have resulted in flukes being pulled off completely or muscle tissue around the tail being severely damaged, which inevitably leads to death. Towed backwards in water, whales will flip upside down.
Aim: to prepare the animals for release and decrease chance of re-stranding
- Once in waist deep water, begin gently rocking the animal from side to side. Have at least 2 people per animal. This should be carried out for as long as possible to allow the animal to familiarise itself with movement in water and to help restore their equilibrium. Whales are easier to control in the water than you might think.
- Bring all animals together so the pod can be released together. Wait until the last animal is ready for release. In a mass stranding, all whales must be released together.
- Reorientation time will vary depending on the condition of the animals but can take an hour or more. Subject to conditions, each animal should have had at least 30 minutes.
- Assess whether the animal can:
- surface to breathe unassisted
- orientate and stay upright in the water
- self-right if rolled onto side
Aim: to release all of the animals in one group
- Release animals in water deep enough for them to swim but shallow enough for helpers to walk. Do not release until given the go ahead from rescue crew. A co-ordinated release will greatly increase the chances of a successful refloat.
- Any whales showing aggressive behaviour are to be avoided and identified to the person coordinating the release.
- Resist the temptation to hang on to your whale. Time and resources have been wasted rescuing people who refuse to let go of their whale.
Aim: to prevent re-strandings
- Step back and form a human chain parallel to the shore, creating a barrier between the animals and the beach. Ensure that you remain in a comfortable depth of water, and not above shoulder height when standing. Stay in line in the human chain. At this stage, animals may become defensive of the pod and may become agitated or aggressive if approached. This may be displayed as tail slapping, swimming close by, or opened mouth lunging. If you are not in the human chain, immediately return to the beach.
- Striking metal objects or slapping the water’s surface can deter animals from returning to shallow water.
- DOC boats may be used to help herd animals offshore.
- Be aware that animals can be groggy, disoriented, and can be very determined to return to shore. Do not jeopardise your own safety to stop the animals returning.
Health and Safety
Potential risks to your health and safety at strandings can be minimised or avoided by using common sense. Do not put yourself or others at risk and be always aware of your surroundings and never push yourself beyond your comfort zone or personal capabilities.
Potential hazards at stranding sites and how to minimise the risks:
- Sunburn or heatstroke - Cover up, apply sunblock at regular intervals, wear a sun hat and sunglasses, keep as cool as possible and drink plenty of fluids.
- Hypothermia - Put on extra clothing, take shelter from the wind, get warm and have a hot drink. If you are in the water get out, get dry and put on warm clothing. One of the main symptoms of hypothermia is denial and shivering.
- Drowning - If you can't swim, stay well within your comfort zone or out of the water altogether. Don't hang on to your whale when it's released.
- Impact, crush and strain injuries - When the whales are being rolled upright, make sure they don't roll onto you. Use safe lifting practices, if you have a bad back don't take part in the lifting. Work on your knees where possible to avoid getting your feet jammed under the whale.
- Lesser injuries - There is a potential for minor injuries to occur, such as cuts and scrapes, sand in your eyes, jellyfish stings or insect bites.
Most accidents at stranding sites can be attributed to the whale’s tail. The muscles in the tail stock of a whale are the most powerful muscles known to mankind. Do not step over or straddle the tail.
Whales can also carry zoonotic diseases (bacteria, viruses, fungi) that can be passed to humans. A whale’s lungs can carry a number of potentially harmful bacteria. Care should be taken during a stranding to avoid breathing air expelled from the blowhole. Salmonella is commonly found in healthy whales and has a wide host range. Water contaminated with faeces, urine and blood can be a source of risk. Your best defence are awareness and good health and hygiene practises such as washing your hands thoroughly and avoid touching your face during the stranding.
Kia ora rawa atu to you, the reader, for taking the time to go through this article all the way to the end. I am hopeful that you have learned something new and that you will use this knowledge to the best of your abilities and share it around whenever necessary, either to remind yourself or to educate others. We can only hope that we will never have to apply this knowledge in real world scenario but unfortunately strandings do happen all around the world. What we can do about it is to be prepared.
I would encourage you to watch the below video which was filmed during the Marine Mammal Medic course in Picton which I attended.
We bear the responsibility to be the guardians of our ocean, our moana. It takes hard work, dedication, commitment and personal sacrifice to help save stranded cetaceans, and sometimes the outcome is not what we would hope for and we fail. But that's okay, if we at least do so without causing any further stress and injuries to the animals, then it's well worth trying it in the end.
Ngā mihi maioha.