Stranded humpback whale calf, Mason Bay, Stewart Island, October 2002. Reproduced courtesy of Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai
Stranded humpback whale calf, Mason Bay, Stewart Island, October 2002. Reproduced courtesy of Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai

Strandings

Whales strand for various reasons. Illness and old age can play a part, as can extreme weather and the make-up of coastlines. Human-made pollution, mishaps with ships and fishing gear can all result in strandings.

How people respond also varies. For some, stranded whales are gifts from the sea. For others, it is a rare opportunity to study these creatures. And many people want to help save them.

Paea ki uta

Arā noa ngā take e paea ai ngā tohorā. Nā te māuiui me te pakeke pea, nā ngā rangi uaua me te takoto o te takutai pea. Ka taea hoki rātou te whakapae e te paru tāngata, te aituā i ngā kaipuke me ngātaputapu hi ika.

He rerekē anō ngā urupare tangata. Mō ēahi he koha nō te moana ēnei tohorā i paea. Mō ētahi atu, he tino wā tēnei hei ako mō ngā kararehe nei. Tokomaha anō ngātāngata e hiahia ana ki te āwhina i a rātou kia ora ai.


 

Ramari Stewart in the process of harvesting a stranded sperm whale, near Westport, 1993. Photograph by Anton van Helden.

Problem, opportunity, resource

Ramari Stewart in the process of harvesting a stranded sperm whale, near Westport, 1993. Photograph by Anton van Helden. Scientists working on a stranded sperm whale on Auckland’s West Coast, 2003. Reproduced courtesy of Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai Flensing decomposing sperm whale, Waiwherowhero at Moeraki. Photograph by Joe Taurima, reproduced courtesy of Joe Taurima, Te Rūnanga o Moeraki Flensing a pilot whale. Photograph by Ramari Stewart, reproduced courtesy of Ramari Stewart.

Problem, opportunity, resource

People’s responses to whale strandings vary greatly. Strandings can have a strong emotional effect on communities, impelling people to come together to rescue these fascinating mammals.

For scientists, a stranding is often the only chance to access specimens for further study. For some species, such as the beaked whales, virtually everything that is known about them is a result of strandings.

Many Pacific people have strong cultural links to whales. Whale strandings may be seen as a spiritual sign. They also offer rare opportunities to gather material, such as whale bone and teeth, for cultural practices and traditions.

Anton van Helden, Collection Manager Marine Mammals, Te Papa discusses collecting stranded whales

 

Rangi Kipa working on whale bone, 2007. Photograph by Norman Heke, reproduced courtesy Rangi Kipa

Rescue!

Rangi Kipa working on whale bone, 2007. Photograph by Norman Heke, reproduced courtesy Rangi Kipa Rangi Kipa working on whale bone, 2007. Photograph by Norman Heke, reproduced courtesy of Te Papa Press and Rangi Kipa

Rescue!

Just as social cohesion in whales can cause mass strandings, the human response to these events is often collective, with communities working together to save these animals.

What happens during rescues? Whales can’t regulate their temperature out of water. That’s why people constantly pour water over them. Whales’ skin is very thin and will burn in the sun, so in summer whales are shaded. Animals are also rocked in the water to regain their balance.

Rescue attempts in New Zealand are usually coordinated by a Department of Conservation worker – the person who needs to be approached if you wish to help. This person also liaises with the local Maori iwi (tribe) to ensure that cultural needs are met.

The beauty of bone - contemporary taonga

South Pacific artists continue the centuries-old practice of using whale bone and teeth in their work. Carvers admire the bone for its fine, wood-like grain. They say it offers a quality that no other material can give.

The two Maori artworks here use contemporary techniques to create ancient and cherished forms.

 

Stranded pilot whales on Okawa Beach, Chatham Islands, December 2005. Reproduced courtesy of Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai

Why do whales strand?

Stranded pilot whales on Okawa Beach, Chatham Islands, December 2005. Reproduced courtesy of Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai Stranded pilot whales on Okawa Beach, Chatham Islands, December 2005. Reproduced courtesy of Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai Stranded humpback whale calf, Mason Bay, Stewart Island, October 2002. Reproduced courtesy of Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai Stranded pilot whales on Ocean Beach, Stewart Island, January 2003. Photograph by Barry Harcourt, reproduced courtesy of The Southland Times. Girl pouring water over stranded pilot whale, Karikari Beach, 1997. Photograph by Dr Ingrid Visser, reproduced courtesy of Dr Ingrid Visser, Orca Research Trust Tū Hononga, the male sperm whale, gifted to Te Papa by Te Kawerau ā Maki in 2006. Reproduced courtesy of the Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai.

Why do whales strand?

Whale strandings are complex events that involve various causes – anything from disease to extreme weather.

A stranded whale might be old or infested with parasites. It could have been poisoned by natural toxins or have had problems with birthing.

Coastlines may play a part in whale strandings. Whales chasing prey near shallow sloping beaches can strand. They can also be trapped by receding tides or swept off course by strong currents. Some people have suggested that abnormalities in the Earth’s magnetic field may also cause strandings.

Human-made noise and pollution, accidents involving boats, and entanglements with fishing gear add to whales’ mortality rate.


New Zealand, a land of strandings

Why so many strandings in New Zealand?

New Zealand’s landmass spans a wide range of ocean waters – from sub-tropical in the north to sub-Antarctic in the south. It presents a long, contorted coastline for whales to strand on. Deep water comes close to shore in many places. And shallow beaches with big tidal ranges provide areas where whales can swim at high tide but get caught at low tide.

What sorts of whales strand?

Because of New Zealand’s extensive coastline and range of waters, a great diversity of species strand – from coastal dolphins to oceanic and deep-water whales.

Mass strandings – all in it together?

Whales that strand in groups are usually highly social animals, open-ocean rather than coastal. This ‘social cohesion’ may well be their undoing. At sea, a whale may signal for help if in trouble. Closer to shore, this survival strategy may be disastrous – drawing the rest of the pod into stranding.

 

Hector’s dolphin calf caught in fishing net, Akaroa Harbour, New Zealand, 1987. Photograph by Dr Stephen Dawson, reproduced courtesy of Dr Stephen Dawson, New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust

Threats

Hector’s dolphin calf caught in fishing net, Akaroa Harbour, New Zealand, 1987. Photograph by Dr Stephen Dawson, reproduced courtesy of Dr Stephen Dawson, New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust Humpback whale tangled in a heavy-gauge fishing line off the coast of Hawai’I, 2007. Reproduced courtesy of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary & the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (Permit # 932-1489)

Threats

Whales are subject to many threats. They are still hunted for food. And they can be caught unintentionally when other species, such as tuna, are targeted. Nets that have been cut free and left to drift kill whales and many other sea animals.

Marine litter such as plastic bags is a danger as is pollution, particularly from ‘persistent’ chemicals – ones that are passed on from generation to generation. Sound pollution, too, can be lethal as many whales depend on sound to find their way around.

 


Top: Sperm whale, courtesy of Brandon Cole. Right: Orca fluke, photograph courtesy of Dr Ingrid Visser, Orca Research Trust