Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rubber whale helps rescuers battle beachings



Rubber whale helps rescuers battle beachings

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A group of volunteers from New Zealand whale rescue charity Project Jonah being taught how to save a stranded whale, at Scorching Bay in Wellington on December 11. AFP

Rubber whale helps rescuers battle beachings

A two-tonne rubber whale can take on a life of its own in the frigid shallows of a windswept New Zealand beach, particularly when a bedraggled group of would-be rescuers is trying to wrestle it into a harness.

“Keep the blowhole clear . . . you’re too close to the tail, one swipe can do a serious injury to yourself and the whale,” an instructor yells as the Wellington rain lashes his pupils.

Despite the discomfort, enthusiasm levels remain high as the group successfully manoeuvre the five-metre long pilot whale replica onto a mat between two inflatable pontoons.

The giant black dummy, and a smaller 200kg version representing a dolphin, are eventually guided to deeper waters by volunteers trained by the New Zealand whale rescue charity Project Jonah.

Filled with water the latex marine mammals help teams prepare for real emergencies – New Zealand has one of the highest whale stranding rates in the world.

Around 300 animals beach themselves annually, according to official figures and it is not unusual for groups of between 20 and 50 pilot whales to run aground.

But numbers can run into the hundreds when a “super pod” is involved – in 2017, there was a mass stranding of almost 700 pilot whales.

“There are always going to be strandings – there was one on Monday, there’ll probably be one next week,” Project Jonah’s communications manager Louisa Hawkes told about 30 trainee whale medics during a course in Wellington.

The wait turns out to be considerably shorter, with a baby pilot whale found stranded near Christchurch that same morning.

As the course continues in a community hall, a Project Jonah coordinator paces outside giving advice via mobile phone to wildlife rangers at the opposite end of the country desperately trying to save the animal.

Sadly, their efforts prove futile and the infant is euthanised a few hours later when its pod cannot be located.

Perfect whale trap

“Strandings are incredibly emotional,” Hawkes tells the volunteers. “If a whale isn’t refloated it can really, really hurt, particularly if you’ve bonded with it.

“You need to ensure you have the resilience needed to cope with whatever’s going to happen.”

No one knows why whales strand but Hawkes said it sometimes occurred when old, sick or injured animals swam ashore and other pod members followed.

She said one orca, a male named Nobby, had been rescued on seven separate occasions from North Island beaches after beaching himself chasing stingrays for food.

Most mass strandings in New Zealand involve pilot whales on gently sloping beaches, which confuse their sonar, making them think they are in shallower waters.

Other pod members then beach themselves trying to respond to the trapped whale’s distress signals.

The South Island’s notorious Farewell Spit, a 26km hook of sand that protrudes into the sea, has been the scene of at least 10 pilot whale strandings in the past 15 years.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Real strandings are all-too common in the country, which has one of the highest rates in the world. AFP

“It’s what we call a perfect whale trap,” Hawkes said.

Many stranded whales are found to be malnourished because their stomachs are full of plastic pollution, while explosions from undersea mining and naval exercises have also been linked to groundings.

Project Jonah was established in 1974 and is regarded as a world leader in whale rescue, helping train New Zealand’s conservation department and police in what to do when strandings occur.

Absolute privilege

The charity has a network of 4,000 volunteers it can mobilise during mass standings, most of them ordinary people who have undergone basic training in becoming marine mammal medics.

“I’m an ocean swimmer and I’ve come across lots of dead whales – I want to know what to do when there’s a situation where there is a chance of rescuing them,” Wellington-based school teacher Leonora Hoke explained when asked why she took the course.

Aside from the emotional toll, Project Jonah warns that whale rescue involves numerous physical risks, including possible injury from the thrashing animals.

The whale’s blowhole expels bacteria and fungi, while the water around the stranded animals is soon contaminated with faeces and blood, the latter of which can attract sharks.

Even dead whales pose a hazard because their bellies fill with gas as they decompose, and can cause the carcasses to explode.

Hawkes, a former youth worker who has been involved with Project Jonah for nine years and lost count of the animals she has saved, said it was worth it to see a stranded whale swimming off into the distance.

MOST VIEWED

  • Angkor lifetime pass, special Siem Reap travel offers planned

    The Ministry of Tourism plans to introduce a convenient, single lifetime pass for foreign travellers to visit Angkor Archaeological Park and potentially other areas. The move is designed to stimulate tourism to the culturally rich province of Siem Reap as the start of the “Visit

  • Bosba: The first Khmer woman composer from UK’s Cambridge

    Bosba Panh is just 25 years old, but she’s already accomplished some impressive milestones for herself and the Kingdom. On July 24, she graduated with a Master’s degree from the University of Cambridge as the first Khmer woman composer and Khmer music graduate ever at

  • ‘Golden’ Angkor Wat likely due to natural phenomenon: ANA

    Pictures and video clips of the Angkor Wat temple, its spires seemingly coated in gold, have been shared tens of thousands of times on social media, prompting a sense of wonder among those who have seen them. Hong Sam Ath, who took the pictures and

  • Pailin longan winery tries to break through to the big time

    Longan aren’t quite as glamorous as some fruits. They don’t have the star-power of mangos or generate the excitement of a pricey seasonal niche fruit like the pungent durian. Unlike bananas or oranges, which are known and loved everywhere, longan remains a decidedly

  • Debt restructuring over, time to tackle rising NPL ratio

    The Cambodian banking system has just completed a 26-month debt restructuring exercise where scores of loan accounts were revised, classified and provisioned as the rate of non-performing loans inched up, sparking a slight credit risk unease Implemented in April 2020, the Covid-19 debt restructuring measures came

  • Koh Slaket studio resort brings culture with style

    Davitra (Cambodia) Co Ltd’s multi-million-dollar 13ha Koh Slaket studio-cum-resort just east of the capital was inaugurated in the first phase on August 6, providing national and international tourists with a new travel option and job opportunities for locals. The man-made cultural and scenic lakefront getaway