Liz Carlson was exploring the islands of New Zealand with her partner Julian Ripoll when she experienced “the worst night of my entire life.”
The American-born travel blogger discovered nearly 150 Pilot whales thrashing about on the beach, stranded and fighting for their lives.
Low tides left the whales high and dry. Carlson and her friend were aghast.
“It was one of these jaw dropping moments,” she told the BBC.
Having dropped her phone in an outdoor latrine, Carlson was hoping her day would brighten up on the beautiful island of Rakiura.
It did not.
“We saw dark figures moving about in the surf, which we first thought were fur seals or sea lions, common around the beaches on Stewart Island,” she wrote on her blog. “To our horror, we quickly realized what we were actually seeing were dozens of pilot whales becoming beached in the surf.”
The sight left Carlson grief stricken. She was powerless to try and push the large mammals back out to sea.
“Nothing can prepare you for this, it was just horrific,” she said. “The futility was the worst. They are crying out to each other and are talking and clicking and there’s no way to help them.”
Carlson and Julian pushed the whales, pulled their tails, anything they could try to get them back out into deeper water.
Nothing was working.
“Up to our waists in the surf, we were getting thrashed by the big waves along with a few good whacks by the whales violently thrashing around,” she wrote. “But it was useless – the whales were so big and heavy, there was no way two of us could even move one, let alone dozens without help. the realization we could do nothing to save them was the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. It’s also the most alone and abandoned I’ve ever felt.”
Exhausted from a day of hiking, wet, sandy, and outfitted with hiking boots, Julian ran for an hour and a half until he could reach the nearest Department of Conservation ranger station.
Carlson stayed with the whales.
“Soaked to the bone, I ran around, alternating between sitting with them and throwing water over the drier whales until my hands were numb from the water and wind,” she wrote. “I had no idea what to do in this situation, with only the vaguest idea of how whale rescues worked (turns out you don’t grab them by the tails).”
In all, 145 whales were struggling to survive on the beach. Carlson noticed one, a baby whale, was almost completely out of the water.
“I tried to drag him back into deeper water over and over again, but it kept rebeaching itself,” she wrote. “The desperate calls it made while flapping its tail desperately will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Carlson could do nothing but apologize to the suffering mammals as they gasped their last pained breaths.
“I knew they would inevitably die,” she wrote on Instagram. “I sank to my knees in the sand screaming in frustration and crying, with the sound of dozens of dying whales behind me, utterly alone.”
By the next morning, many of the whales had died, though some were still clicking in agony.
With so few people on the island, and so many whales on the beach, there was no way Carlson, Ripoll, and two rangers would be able to save the creatures. The New Zealand Department of Conservation advised them to leave their bodies on the sand, and walk away.
“It would take close to 1000 people to save them, more than double the whole population of Rakiura,” Carlson wrote. “The logistics of rescuing them in such a remote place was impossible. Between the gear required, the amount of people needed, the tides, the winds and bad weather, time wasn’t on our side. How would we even get the people there?”
The DOC staff euthanized the rest of the whales. Those that were still alive did not suffer much longer after Carlson and Ripoll made their way back to camp.
“Even though it was the right thing, I feel so horrible that we were the ones that alerted DOC and they had to put them down, which in some twisted way feels like my fault,” Carlson wrote. “My heart hurts so much for the man who had that unspeakable job, who I know would have done anything to save them too.
“This is an experience that will haunt everyone involved.”
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Saturday night was the worst night of my entire life. 50kms into a 5 day tramp on the remote west coast of Stewart Island, we were wandering back to our camp at at sunset and came across hundreds of pilot whales becoming beached in the low surf. When we realized the horror of what we were seeing, we dropped everything and ran straight into the water. Desperately we grabbed their tails and pushed and yelled, before we got hammered by them thrashing around. It was useless – they were so big and heavy and the realization we could do nothing to save them was the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced. We were in a place with no people, no service, no help. @ju_riviera was a champion and took off running at 8:30pm in his wet sandy clothes and boots almost 15 kilometers back to a base hut up the bay where we knew there were DOC rangers working who would have a radio. He made it in 1.5 hours to raise the alarm, and I stayed with the whales til dark, sitting with them, dragging the smallest baby back in the water every few minutes before it would rebeach itself, and throwing water over the drier whales until my hands were numb from the water and wind. I’ll never forget their cries, the way they watched me as I sat with them in the water, how they desperately tried to swim but their weight only dug them deeper into the sands. My heart completely broke. When the realization there was no hope, it was almost dark, high tide was in the middle of the night and knowing this was one of the most remote places in New Zealand, I knew they would inevitable die. I sank to my knees in the sand screaming in frustration and crying, with the sound of dozens of dying whales behind me, utterly alone. It would take close to 1000 people to save them, more than double the whole population of Rakiura. The only positive bit was thanks to us alerting everyone, they were able to euthanize them shortly afterwards, and my heart hurts for the man who had that horrific job, and would have done anything to save them too. Otherwise it would have likely been days before anyone even knew the whales were there and a very long painful slow death for them all. I’ll never be the same after this.
According to the New York Times, similar mass stranding have occurred on the same beach at least three times in the last 20 years. In 1998, more than 300 whales beached themselves near Mason Bay. In 2017, at least 250 met the same fate.
This phenomena is believed to be prompted by whale pods getting disoriented after chasing prey or escaping predators, but the true cause of mass stranding events is largely unknown.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.