Dr. Ingrid Visser and the Whale Rescue team along with HUHA, Animal EVAC, local Iwi (Māori tribe), Plimmerton community and hundreds of volunteers have poured their hearts and souls into saving a male orca calf that stranded on rocks at Hongoeka Bay in Plimmerton, Aotearoa (New Zealand). He was soon named "Toa" by the local Iwi, which stands for being brave. I have witnessed extraordinary efforts, dedication, love, kindness and personal sacrifices from people of different backgrounds who all came together to help save little Toa and help find his pod, his whānau (family), in hope of reuniting them.
Unfortunately despite everyone's amazing and inspiring efforts, little Toa took his last breath on 23rd July. His health rapidly deteriorated that night and vets who rushed to his aid could not unfortunately save him. When this happened, Dr. Ingrid Visser did a beautiful gesture. Few people who had been closely involved in his care were quietly called down to the water and gently held him upright and comforted him, very silently, for the last hour of his life. Toa’s last moments were filled with love, surrounded by those whom Toa knew the best. He passed away quickly and quietly under a full moon during a cloudless beautiful night. A ceremony was performed and several Karakia (blessing) were sung. Toa's body was treated with dignity and respect so no necropsy was performed. Toa was taken for burial on a sacred land by Ngāti Toa Rangatira, a local Iwi who have been involved with Toa's rescue since the beginning.
I am not ashamed to admit that I did shed a few grown man tears when I heard the sad news on Friday night. It took me by surprise and I felt like I was hit by a train, I felt helpless, confused and angry. I was angry at myself that surely I could have done more to perhaps avoid this. Unfortunately, that is life and way of nature, all we can do is to pay our respects, learn and move on. Toa has taught us that if we come together for the purpose of being compassionate and benevolent we can achieve incredible and inspiring things that resonate throughout the continents. He left us with an unspoken message that we should treat all sentient beings with equal importance, respect and kindness.
Toa brought togetherness, kindness and unconditional love and touched many hearts from all over the world in times when humanity is divided with fear, ignorance and hate. Toa has imprinted a little bit of himself on every single one of us, he made us all brave. His legacy will live on for generations to come.
Swim free now little one.
Haere rā Toa.
BEFORE THE STORM
The very first time I have heard about Toa's stranding I have immediately started to cast webs on my social media channels to spread awareness about the situation with numbers to call if anyone sees an orca pod. Me and my wife have also started going for long walks along the coastline where we live (Miramar) and visited a high point to watch out for any orca pods with our binoculars.
It was then 15th July when we had our very first volunteering shift on site monitoring Toa's breathing pattern. This was an hour that simply just flew by as I was mesmerised by seeing a wild orca with my own eyes for the very first time in my life, however in an unfortunate situation. I enjoyed seeing Toa being playful, blowing bubbles, doing zoomies and just him being a little pēpē (baby). We were then chosen to guard the entrance to the camp to make sure no unauthorised people come through and that everyone disinfects their footwear coming in and out. We also did a little bit of caravan duty (on a different day), making sure that everybody familiarise themselves with Health & Safety protocols, showing new volunteers around and looking after the caravan. I am sure everyone wanted to go into the water with Toa, get to know him, keep him company and keep him safe. I sure know I did (my very first shift was scheduled for 25th July on Sunday afternoon), especially as a trained Marine Mammal Medic I was ready to apply my knowledge in real life scenario. However no task is too small when life of an animal and its welfare are at risk. We all played an important part in this operation.
Another reason I was invited to the site was to provide a little bit of photography coverage for the "Operation Toa". My aim was to capture an essence of the situation and the day in the life of Toa and everyone involved. Interestingly enough, it was the day when a decision was made to move Toa into a temporary pool due to worsening weather conditions which would made the sea pen, where Toa was held, very unsafe for everyone. I hope that you enjoy the below gallery and that it brings back memories of kindness, unity, love and bravery.