Its 1.30 am in the morning and I am hanging onto a 4m false killer whale trying to stop her beaching herself. I am thinking; what do we do if she decides to start swimming out to sea? Fellow AfriOceans Warrior and founder of AfriOceans Conservation Alliance Lesley Rochat is on her other side. She rolls in the gentle moonlit surf and we fight to right her 800 kg body for the hundredth time. I am sure I can see tears running down her face. This incredible creature did not want to leave without her two family members. We can hear the continuous high pitched messages between the three exhausted whales. There was nothing left to do. As the officials arrived and we were asked to leave, driving away with tears flowing freely, I heard three loud blasts that signalled the end of their struggle. Hours later, a TV crew tells us a 4th whale is shot at Strandfontein after beaching. At least one has made it, it must be Jude, I keep reassuring myself. Later that afternoon, I suddenly decide to return to the scene of the beaching of the 3 of the 5 released whales, only to find the 5th and final whale floating in the shallows. I rushed into the water but she had been dead for hours. It wasn’t Jude. It was over. No Survivors. I was stunned! A song comes into my mind, slightly adapted ‘They Shoot Whales Don’t They?’ I am thinking what is the world out there going to say about how us South Africans deal with stranded whales, shooting them again? An entire tribe of 20 False killer whales have died under tragic and mysterious circumstances and I have a lot more questions than answers.
It started on a peaceful Sunday morning, the 25th of March, reading the Sunday newspapers and thinking I would take it easy and just chill. Suddenly a text from a fellow activist…. # ‘Whales beached on Noordhoek beach. NSRI in attendance’. I knew I had to get there quickly to gain access. After the last tragic event on nearby Long Beach in 2009, when 44 false killer whales were shot in full view of hysterical residents, the authorities would try to restrict access. When I reached the car park it was all happening. Cars everywhere, road ahead blocked off. I grabbed my camera and started walking. Ahead on the beach, there were hundreds of people, rushing to catch some cool footage on their cell phones to impress friends, whilst Disaster Management and Parks board officials formed a cordon to hold back the crowds. I phoned Lesley Rochat and alerted her to find another route. I spoke my way through three cordons and the next thing I was standing photographing the first whale I came across. It was lying on its side, breathing strongly with a blast of air every 20 seconds or so and rescuers in red wetsuits were struggling to get the PVC hammock under its one ton body. They called for more help. I responded automatically. ‘I’ll help’ and the next thing I am digging a hole under the whale! I thrust my camera at a policeman, standing there. ‘Please keep it’. He nods. I am in! I keep digging and I feel a hand touch mine and then a strap. ‘If you feel the strap, pull it through’ says a pretty lady clad in a red wetsuit as she leans over the whale from the other side. The middle of the whale is so heavy but finally, we managed to pull the hammock under the whale. ‘All together now. Heave!’ Now we are walking it up the beach. I am starting to wonder why are we taking them away from the sea?
The red wetsuit clad team move on to the next whale and a bunch of locals take over the stabilising of our whale. I decide I will stay with this whale, No. 4, as long as I can, and try and save one, rather than thinking I could save them all. If I am seen to be working, they might let me stay. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Lesley in her distinctive Shark Warrior T-shirt, being herded off the beach by police and parks board officials. If I go to her assistance, I will be out. I keep my head down and we get to work carrying sea water in shiny silver buckets as others constantly pour water over her body, now covered by white sheets. We are soaked, but no one minds, At her head, sits Judy Sole, founder of the Green Party of South Africa; as she quietly talked to and soothed our whale, cupping her hand above the blow hole, another bucket full of icy Atlantic seawater splashes over its massive body. I am at the right whale! She rolls and we quickly push her straight again. You could feel her sigh. The weight of gravity on her organs was slowly killing her. Every minute out of water is a minute too long. The kids are awesome and everyone is pitching in, some bringing water, others apples and bananas for hungry rescuers. There was such a spirit of working together with a single objective: to save our whale that we named Jude. Down the beach, I see stranded whales, draped in sheets, with red clad rescuers doing their best. We hear 5 whales had died before rescuers got to them. Behind us, I can hear activists chanting ‘Save the Whales. Don’t kill the Whales’. I can see Lesley and Trevor Hutton involved and secretly hope I don’t have to bail them out of jail later. The crowd is growing on the other side of the cordon. The tide is rising and the sun is beating down. Splash! More water runs down her body and pools in the cleverly crafted sand pool we have made around her. If any of the whales were going to survive, it was going to be Jude.
The trucks and cranes are on their way, an official tells us. Just keep doing what you are doing. You are doing a great job. “Where are the whales going to?” I ask. ”To Simonstown”, is the reply. Awesome! we are so excited as we rush for more sea water in our shiny silver pails. They are going to make it. 14 whales are still alive including a mother and calf. The crowds are decidedly thinner at this point. Lesley has managed to extricate herself and I see her at the press briefing by Wilfred Johannes Solomons, Disaster Management. She tells me shortly afterwards that only 5 whales will be taken to Simonstown and the rest will be shot! I can’t believe it. I return to tell Judy, who is being interviewed for National television. We break the news to those in our group and make a pact to lie over our whale if necessary. Jude would not be shot. Death by a bullet was non-negotiable.
Our team is doing an incredible job, retrieving sea water, whilst others pour the water over her prone body. Her breathing is still strong. Judy is talking to her. Where are the trucks? A wave runs up the beach and swamps us. Jude moves as if she wants to leave. A group of officials arrive at our whale. ‘Ok; we want you to reduce your group to six members,’ a traffic policeman tells us, surprised that we ignore him. ‘We only want six in a team; the rest must leave; thank you very much’. ‘We need our entire team here’, we respond. ‘No; only six, or we will remove you’, he says, smiling, patting his service revolver. The kids and the two young teenagers reluctantly leave, tears streaming down their faces. ‘Please look after Jude; don’t let her die they shout out’. I am still in. It’s getting hot. We are exhausted and now our team has been slashed in half. There’s water to fetch. The beach is nearly empty. The chanting activists are gone. There are a lot more policemen and law enforcement now. Lesley was right; they had cleared the beach to begin shooting the whales.
” Your whale is looking the strongest. She is going on the next truck”, a red rescuer arrives to tell our exhausted team at 2.30 pm. A huge yellow trench digger comes trundling up to us as they pull a long flatbed truck across the thick sand. I am thinking: this is not really the right type of rescue equipment? Officials are buzzing around Jude now. We don’t want to hand her over. I see they are struggling to position her on the truck, not much cushioning for her enormous body. I jump onto the truck and help her as she is lowered down. “Only NSRI on the truck”. I remain, not moving. An official I know points to me and says I can stay on the truck and told me I was responsible to make sure Jude didn’t roll over. I was elated but sad to see my team standing on the beach, empty. Their part of the rescue had come to an end. As we made our way off the beach and onto the car park, the crowds lining the road were cheering and straining to catch a glimpse of this strange creature from the depths of the oceans. We only have six buckets of water with us, so we had to work sparingly with it. I am holding Jude’s tail which was hanging over the side of the truck, making sure it didn’t hit any cars or trees on its journey to Simonstown. Lights flashing, sirens wailing. Jude was getting a Blue light brigade, something reserved for highly placed politicians. We are on our way to freedom. As the 5 whales left the beach, the shots rang out. 9 living, breathing whales, including a mother and calf were killed, deemed by ‘experts’ to be too weak to survive. How I wished that they could have been given the same chance Jude was getting now. There was nothing we could do except hope that our mercy mission to calmer waters would succeed. The roads were lined with people and cars, cameras flashing, cell phones held high. The goodwill was incredible.
When we arrived at Simonstown dockyard after a journey which seemed like an eternity, yet only 15 km, we had finished our water and Jude was still. Was she still breathing? Yes, came the response from the head. Judy and our team had followed us and were there to meet us. A huge crane lifted her onto the synchro lift next to the others. The wind was strong. The sea was rough. As the lift lowered into the sea, we kept Jude calm and poured water over her. There was little else we could do. A huge tug reversed into the area and Jude and her two family friends were hoisted aboard. An NSRI boat came alongside with a small whale in a hammock, supported by red clad rescuers. It had been the first off the beach, had been released in front of Berthas restaurant and promptly re-beached itself. That was not good news but we were glad that it had been reunited with the 4 that had made the journey away from the killing fields. All we could do is pray that they would gather their strength, stay together and find their way to the open sea and freedom.
There was Lesley and Trevor, standing on the quayside, filming. I was relieved that I wouldn’t have to bail them out of jail. I shouted and motioned for them to get on the second tug. AfriOceans was there, always where the action was. I was very proud. As we left the calmness of the naval dockyard, the wild sea hit us with force, waves pouring over the deck. The three whales on our tug seemed to sense they were at sea now and we struggled to keep their tails still. Judy took up her position at Jude’s head, as waves crashed over the side and I felt we now had every chance in the world to save these five whales. As we approached Roman Rock lighthouse, we prepared to lift up each whale over the side with the crane. It was time to go. I kissed Jude on the head and whispered a farewell and then she was up, swinging dangerously in the hammock above our heads. As the hammock hit the water, she easily extricated herself and disappeared from the surface. A few heart stopping moments followed before she emerged with an almighty blow, next to our port side, as if to say ‘Thank you’. As the sun disappeared over the mountain, the five false killer whales swam strongly together into the bay. We had succeeded and there were high fives and hugs all around. Elated, we watched until we could no longer see them and then reluctantly returned to base. Our work was done. Little did we know it was not to be the end of the story.
Later that night, after sending the whales a message of love and support, I received a call from Lesley Rochat to say that three of the whales had beached themselves at Long Beach, Simonstown. When I arrived there shortly afterwards, I could see the whales thrashing around in the shallows, no crowds, no cameras, no officials, no veterinarians and no council staff. Just three very distressed whales. As we stood there thinking what to do, Lesley and I realised we had to try and swim them out again. As I swam with them, I promised them we would find out what had happened that caused this tragic event. Sadly, Jude was not amongst them and I have realised now that she suffered a terrible lonely death far from her remaining family. We will get to the bottom of this. For Jude’s sake.
In writing this blog, many questions surfaced that I would like answered by the ‘authorities and experts’:
- Why was there no autopsy/s done on the beach early in the day to establish cause of death?
- Why were no further attempts made to swim the whales out from Noordhoek beach?
- Why were seasoned conservationists chased and hounded off the beach?
- Why were only 5 whales chosen to be rescued whilst 8 were shot after many hours being cared for by passionate locals and children?
- Why did an official say they ‘knew the 5 whales would all re-beach again’?
- Why were all the living whales not taken to Fish Hoek and put into the recently trialled shark exclusion area together where they could have been stabilised, nursed back to health and treated in a confined sheltered area?
- The whales were healthy yet they had no longer the ability to navigate. A pod of ‘killer whales’ was observed by a number of independent witnesses in the 12 Apostles area of Table Bay the day before the stranding. Could their stranding have been related to huge underwater explosions at the MV Seli 1 at Blouberg the previous week, which reportedly ‘rattled windows and set off car alarms’?
- The use of heavy flat-bed trucks were not suited to the sandy beach. Why did the authorities not use ski boat trailers and 4 x 4 vehicles instead? This would have greatly reduced the time delay of hours waiting for vehicles to arrive.
- Where were the teams combing the coastline for the 5 released whales, if we found 4 of the 5 whales ourselves, with no teams or officials around?
- Were the vets involved qualified marine mammal veterinarians?
- Why were the 5 released whales not tagged to identify them later, even simple spaghetti tags would have sufficed?
- There were lots of solid waste teams and law enforcement. Where were the whale experts and why did they not visit our whale regularly to monitor her condition properly?
- Why did the scene resemble an aircraft or bus disaster rather than a rescue situation?Why are ngo’s and individuals involved in the rescue attempt not invited to provide input to the debriefing meeting in order to improve stranding response practice in the future?
For the Whales