It's cold and dark, and it's a very long time before the next high tide. The shallow mudflats on the upper reaches of the northern Tauranga Harbour are no place for a dolphin. It's times like this that you find out who your friends are.

Turns out that you have more than you thought, and they include a local farmer, the volunteer fire brigades from Athenree and Katikati, the Whale Rescue team, and a range of locals all ready to help. Just as well too. 1500 metres is a long way to get carried.

left and below: The dolphin was on its side when help arrived. It was carefully rolled upright and holes dug in the sand for the flippers. The dolphin was covered with a wet sheet which is kept away from the eyes and blowhole and prevents the dolphin's skin from drying out in the wind or sun. That's what the bucket is for, there's often a lot of water carrying at strandings. Notice some helpers are wearing wetsuits. No point rushing off to save a dolphin if you are going to end up in hospital with hypothermia.

The Department of Conservation runs Marine Mammal Medic courses which train people to help at strandings.

Why do whales and dolphins strand?
There are many theories, but the simple answer is we are not sure. Below are some of the more likely possibilities:
Sickness or disease: Whales and dolphins breathe air. Aged or sick animals beach themselves when they are unable to swim.
Parasite infestation: Parasites like worms in the dolphin's inner ear may cause disorientation.
Electrical storms and sudden meteorological changes: Electrical storms disrupt the animals' echo location ('sonar') system. Analysis of mass strandings shows a relationship with increasing barometric pressure.
Ocean 'hotspots': Some mass stranding areas have been found near areas with complex currents.
Physical topography: Gradually sloping sandy beaches may produce poor or confusing echolocation signals, as sound waves are deflected rather than reflected. Peninsulas and capes with long gently sloping beaches are recognised mass stranding areas. These areas are known as ‘whale traps’, the most common site in New Zealand being Farewell Spit at the top of the South Island.
Inshore feeding: Some mass and solitary strandings are thought to occur because the animals accidentally become stranded when the tide goes out while they are following their food source into shallow water.

Sometimes whales restrand. After being helped back into the water they swim back onto the beach. This has given rise to the idea that thet may be attempting to kill themselves. This is not the case. More likely, they are confused after being beach-caste, are part of a strong social group, or are ill or exhausted.

above: Katikati resident Sue Furness joins the bucket line.

right: Help arrives. Local residents and the local fire brigades from Athenree and Katikati carry the dolphin to deeper water by placing a large tarpaulin under it and then taking turns at the long stretcher carry.

below: Almost there. Soon the water will be deep enough for the dolphin to swim unaided.

We'd like to report a happy ending to this story, but it didn't turn out that way. After being released the dolphin received several injuries (presumably from sharks) and restranded the next day. Department of Conservation staff attended the second stranding and the dolphin was put down and buried.

If you find a stranded whale or dolphin ….

  • Firstly, assess the situation so that you are able to relay information to the appropriate authorities. Make sure you take note of the location and accessibility; sea and weather conditions; tide state; species (or description if unknown); number; and condition of the animal/s.
  • If an animal is motionless and not breathing, it may be in a deep-dive reflex, rather than dead. To determine if it is alive, very gently touch an eye with a clean finger (sunscreen, sand, and dirt will cause further distress to the animal). If it is alive, the animal will blink and/or flinch.
  • Call for help - contact the nearest Department of Conservation office. They have experienced personnel who can be dispatched immediately.
  • Keep the animal upright to ensure the blowhole is kept clear of the water.
  • Keep the animal wet and cool – wet sheets are excellent for covering smaller whales and dolphins. However, make sure you keep the blowhole uncovered and avoid pouring water down it. Dig holes around the tail flukes and pectoral fins and fill with water.
  • Keep noise to a minimum to avoid placing further stress on the animal.
  • Avoid pushing or pulling whales or dolphins by their dorsal fin, pectoral fins, or tail flukes. They can be broken or dislocated, causing further distress for the animal.
  • Be gentle – cetaceans’ skin is extremely delicate and is easily damaged.
  • For your own safety, avoid stepping over the tail of a whale or dolphin - always walk around.