On Monday the 21st of September, 470 pilot whales became stranded in Macquarie Harbour and while most died, rescuers saved 110.

Wildcare Friends of Macquarie Harbour Acting President, Trevor Norton spends most of his time keeping his 20-metre yacht Stormbreaker shipshape and taking tourists up and down the wild Gordon River which empties into Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast.

But last week the Strahan local found himself part of a team of volunteers working to keep stranded pilot whales upright and cool until they could be returned to the ocean.

Life-Changing Experience:
The experience has changed the way this son of a fisherman thinks about the marine mammals, which he said he previously regarded as “just another fish”.

Wildcare member Trevor Norton on left

“I was part of a team of Wildcare volunteers who assisted Parks and Wildlife, fish farm staff, and other Tasmanian volunteers in what turned to be a fairly successful rescue effort. It was an interesting and rewarding experience.

The approximate number of staff and volunteers working with the whale rescue on location in Strahan was 130 plus. This included more than 60 volunteers  (including 25 Surf Life Saving Vols and State Emergency Service).

“They’re such a large animal, and obviously fairly intelligent, the whole process of being a human communicating so closely with another mammal like that on the beach, it’s just an amazing thing to do,” Mr Norton said.

“I kept thinking, Imagine if I were in the water and another animal was trying to keep me alive, and doing the same thing, what would I be thinking?”

The team Trevor was a part of tended to three whales on Friday, and all three survived.

They seemed to know we were helping them:
On the beach alongside the treacherous passage into Macquarie Harbour known as Hells Gates, the volunteer rescuers had to brace themselves against large waves that threatened to tip the whale over, while ensuring they themselves would not be crushed by the three-tonne animals.

Trevor stood near the side of a whale, avoiding the tail which can injure rescuers, with a bucket of cool water at the ready, and other volunteers were stationed near the animal’s head, washing sand out of its eyes.

Each whale responded differently to its human helpers:
“Some were quite subdued, so you’re getting concerned about whether they’re on their last breath and dying, or whether they’re responding to you and saying, I’m OK, these land creatures are keeping me upright, helping me breathe, and keeping me cool.

Trev Norton said that at times he felt like the whale was working with the volunteers.

“I was amazed how placid they were and amazed that they seemed to know we were helping them.”

“Their breathing is important, so when you’re putting buckets of water on them, I had to make sure I did it between breaths, waiting for them to take a breath and close their blowhole before I could dampen them down.

“It’s amazing how well the whole system worked, because each whale is almost a different project created by the different environment in each individual station.”

Trevor said he hoped the surviving pod did not become stranded again.

“I was telling each of them,” Right, you’ve got to tell all your offspring that Macquarie Harbour is a nasty spot. Don’t come in here and do this again!

What caused the stranding?
If only we could communicate with whales. Imagine what they could tell us. Marine biologist Dr Olaf Meynecke told Sky News, “These animals use sonar and are going into shallow bays and completely lose orientation.” One possibility that volunteers from our group think is worth investigation is whether whales may have been attracted by food in the form of farmed fish. Either way, once through Hell’s Gate, confronted by tannin-stained dark water, fast currents and shallow sandbanks known to obstruct their sonar, panic may have sent them into harm’s way.

Jack Binder,
Wildcare Friends of Macquarie Harbour and Waterways

Wildcare Tasmania footnote:
DPIPWE have advised us that they would like to thank all those who have contacted them to offer assistance and request to join future education and training opportunities. They advise that they have received a high level of submissions from the public and therefore the expressions of interest period has now been closed.

Click here to read the Premier’s thank you message to the responders.

Those interested in exploring other types of volunteering opportunities with Wildcare are invited to browse the events on our website and/or join a Welcome to Wildcare’ Zoom call.