Wednesday, 27 July 2005 00:00

Beached whales in Western Australia

By Peter Buzzacott

Heidi Palmer, manager of Cape Dive, breathes a sigh of relief.     It was 10am when I got the call. More than 150 False Killer Whales were foundering in Geographe Bay; a hundred had already beached themselves west of Busselton and volunteers were needed in the water.  I hung up the phone, flicked on the kettle and threw my wetsuit in the car.  Then I fished out a pack of chicken soups, grabbed the last half-a-loaf of bread, the water boiled, I filled a flask and hit the road.

Part 1

My first impressions when I hit the beach - pheewww, even now it is hard to describe.  Reluctantly I took a few photos, then picked a whale who was all alone and ran back to the car, quickly got changed and headed down to the water.  The whales were beached in two places, maybe 80 or so on the shore to the east of us, and about 40 where I was, with about 30 people trying to drag them back-in, in teams of about eight people per whale, so there were plenty of whales spare.  Sixty onlookers had gathered on the sand.  Two kilometres to the east a bigger crowd had formed.
I approached my whale, and saw she had a chunk about the size of an Anzac biscuit missing from the skin just behind her head, on the top.  She was laying on her side, high up on the sand at the high water mark, a bigger whale laying against her, between her and the sea.  There wasn't much I could do here by myself.  As one group released a whale back into the wild I joined a young couple struggling to roll a big whale over.  The group joined us and together, about ten of us managed to roll him over onto his stomach.  I gave him a hug.  He was warm, and his skin was smooth, like soft leather.  We waited for the waves, and with each wave we'd lift and drag, lift and drag.  Between waves we'd scoop sand out from under him, then a wave would break and we'd lift, and drag, and bit-by-bit we rescued him.  It was hard work, physically.  These buggers weigh heaps.
When he was floating again we turned him around, he thrashed about, threw us off, and was away to join his mates out to sea.  I went back to the injured one.  A young woman joined me, then a couple of guys, and then we had a crew together and started getting on with it.  There were no egos in the water today.  Each said what needed to be said, and along the beach we could hear 'Big wave coming', 'Do you want a wet towel for this one', 'Keep going, on the count of three', every person focussed on the task at hand.
The group rolled 'my' whale over, and three of us held him upright while the rest got to work on the big one next to me, between us and the sea.  They dug, scooped, tugged and struggled.  It was hard work too.  CALM were setting up information points at beach access roads, wildlife officers were briefing volunteers, a big back-hoe made it's way toward us, people were setting up tents, there were about 150 people here now, and dozens arriving by the minute.  Eventually the big one got dragged out, and we started working on my injured one.  We scooped and dug, and a guy who seemed to be taking overall charge ran between groups, giving advice like 'Don't grab their fins, it hurts and they get distressed', and 'Don't get sand in their blow-hole or it'll go into their lungs' and so on.  This is really important stuff.  Whoever he was, he did a great job.
The backhoe started digging out sand in front of our whale.  When a wave came in, it would fill the hole and rush back to the sea, carving out sand from under the whale.  Now, instead of just a little water flowing back along the whale's side, we had heaps of it and everyone was digging.  Not a spare handhold on this whale, she was chock-o-block with people.  'All together on the next wave'
The guy in charge shouted for us to hold the whale in the shallows, so the vet could check her out, and we could let them all go at the same time.  Then he told us this one was number nine.  I hung on to the tail.  It was beautiful - her skin was soft to the touch, and she had an old scar which had healed up so well I could just make out where it used to be.  I have scars like that.
Four wheel drives arrived, patio heaters were set up, more tents erected, someone came by and registered our names and contact details, and we hung on to number nine.  More whales and volunteers joined us, and the guy in charge started sending in relief teams to relieve anyone who was cold.  I was in a two-piece 5mm suit with dive booties, and the sea is my office, (plus I'm a bit chubby), so I was fine, but some of the young Busselton High School kids were getting cool in the wetsuits supplied free to volunteers.
Heidi, manager of Cape Dive, the region's only PADI Five Star facility, was holding a big whale next to ours.  I noticed that her whale had blood coming from a wound on the front of its right fluke, and I called out 'he's bleeding, on his tail'.  An hour later a vet came by and asked me 'is this the whale with the bleeding tail?'  I said not and pointed to the injured one, but felt overwhelmed, that someone had reported the tail, that a vet was now here, volunteering her time, in the rain, in the cold, in the sea.  Cape Dive supplied a boat, a full crew, a ton of wetsuits, made phone calls, and got here as quick as they could.  I could see Peter McDonald, owner of the Dive Shed, Busselton's premier dive centre, herding whales offshore in the Cygnet, the Cape Dive boat.  I guess no-one's diving the HMAS Swan today.  Looks like all the local dive professionals were here in the water.

Part 2

The Josh Palmeter's Surf Academy surf bus drove passed, with a bus full of Margaret River High School students in hot pursuit.  He told me later that he'd got the call as he was about to take a school group for surfing lessons, so he said 'the surfing's off, we've got whales to rescue', then he dressed all the kids in three surfing wetties each, and he reckons they jumped in and did not quit.  Summing-up he said  'they were fantastic - real heroes, all of them'.  Wherever I looked there were shivering kids, housewives, tattooed men, old people, some of them dressed in their daily clothes.  Some people couldn't stay on the beach any more, so they just walked into the sea in their shirt and trousers and held a whale.
A woman walked along the beach carrying a pile of towels from her home, offering them to volunteers.  The Mandalay Beach Resort sent urns of hot soup and trays of sandwiches.  People were helping anyway they could.  By now there were about 500 people at our end of the beach, and another thousand with the eastern pod.  Red Rooster sent over hundreds of hot chicken rolls for the volunteers, CALM set up emergency canteens, local businesses were closing and coming to help, mini-skips were being delivered for the inevitable rubbish, West Whale volunteers were organising shifts, they had teams going in, were taking new registrations, everyone was checking in and out of the water.  This resembled a FULL MONTY DISASTER RESPONSE, with well over a thousand people working in concert.
I kept hold of number nine.  Every now and then she'd throw me about but I'd try to hold her gently if possible, unless she got really frisky and I was worried she'd throw off her group.  We were down to five volunteers holding each whale, to minimise the stress, and number nine was friskier than my first whale, and he'd thrown us off at will, so I stayed put and held her loosely, running my hand along her flank and giving her a pat when she was behaving herself, and hanging on firmly when she wasn't.  Only once did she really toss me about good and proper, smacking me down against the sandy floor, but I hung on as tenderly as I could, not letting her go but trying not to hold her in a rigid grip.
The crews kept changing, I met teachers, housewives, an exchange student from Sweden, just ordinary people, holding a whale, in the rain, while the surf rolled in.  We were all getting thrown about quite a lot by the swell, my knees were hurting from the constant up-and-down impacts, and every now and then we'd drift out to sea a bit and I could only touch bottom on tip-toe, so I'd grab air between waves, and I'd call 'move forward' till I could stand again.  I hung on to number nine for two hours.  All up I was in the water for about three.  It really seemed like less than one.  Eventually a group came to relieve us and a strong-looking guy offered to take my place, so I let go of the tail, said good-bye to number nine, and walked ashore.
I didn't feel cold, but when I tried to unzip my suit I couldn't grasp the zipper properly, and when one of the marvellous dears manning the canteen gave me a hot coffee my hands wouldn't stop shaking, so I guess I'd lost more heat than I realised but, like I said, I'm used to spending the day in-water (not usually in June though), was well-insulated and have a higher heat-capacity than a thin person.  When they turned the whales around and set them free ordinary people, strangers really, turned and hugged each other with joy.  Some cried.  I think everyone was wonderful, especially people that feel the cold, but most especially the old people who walked into the sea in their clothes.  I hope I turn out like you.
Of the more than a hundred whales that beached themselves in Busselton, only one died, the rest were last seen at sunset, rounding Cape Naturaliste, 25Kms away.  I feel proud to be human today.

'And God created great whales' - Genesis
'We saw also abundance of large whales, there being more in those southern seas, as I may say, by a hundred to one; than we have to the northward of us'
-          Captain Cowleys Voyage Round the Globe, A.D. 1729
'Here they saw such huge troops of whales that they were forced to proceed with a great deal of caution for fear they should run their ship upon them'
- from John Harris's Navigantum atque Itinerantum Bibliotheca
'Oh, the rare old whale, mid storm and gale
In his ocean home will be
A giant in might, where might is right,
And king of the boundless sea.'
-          Traditional song
Peter Buzzacott owns Reef Diving, a diver training business in Bunbury, Western Australia.  He loves whales.