When Nelson woman Mary Seelen woke up on Friday to the news of the whale stranding in Golden Bay, she automatically knew she had to go and help.
With a few days off before her teacher training course started, and her four kids at school, her husband said – ‘just go.’
And, it was the right decision – as what followed was a “life changing experience” for Mary and her 13 year old son, Brodie.
About three-quarters of the 400 pilot whales that beached themselves on Farewell Spit on Thursday night died before rescuers arrived the next morning.
Another 200 were found alive on a nearby beach on Saturday morning, with most making their own way back to sea at high tide that night.
Volunteers then successfully refloated the 17 that were still stranded on Sunday.
Mary says that she lost count of how many buckets of water she tipped over the whales over the 10 hours she was out in the water on Friday.
“Project Jonah briefed us on the do’s and don’ts, such as that you never stand in front of the whales’ heads – it can make them stressed as that’s where their sonar system is.”
Mary says that many of the people helping on Friday were young freedom campers who had been at the Luminate Festival.
Among them were people from Spain, Italy, America, Germany, France, and The Czech Rebublic.
“It was a beautiful thing to have all of these different people working together with a shared purpose, and seeing people from all walks of life whispering words of encouragement to the whales, praying for them and singing to them in a multitude of languages as they knelt beside them, stroking their heads,” she says.
“Often, if the whale had a dry area and you poured the water on, it would respond in a way that you knew and it knew you were helping it,” she says.
“You could feel their sigh of relief and you sensed them calm and their breathing slow down when you stroked and rocked them.”
After a break on Saturday, Mary returned early on Sunday morning with Brodie.
“We pretty much just leapt into our wetsuits as fast as we could,” she says.
She says that on Sunday there was a different atmosphere and more locals and children were helping.
“We ended up helping a whale closer to the road and we held it gently in the water and rocked it side-to-side, which helps it get its bearings.”
“I was on my knees over this whale, hugging it. You feel so connected. It kept going through my head: ‘they may not make it but at least we can provide some comfort in this time’.”
Mary says that when they let them go, it was the “best feeling ever.”
“Everyone joined hands in a long chain and when the last whale was let go there was a big cheer.”
“Brodie then said to me: ‘I’m never going to forget this’.”
Mary says the support from local businesses was also amazing, with Subway providing free food for the volunteers, and Farewell Spit Eco Tours taking them back and forth to the whales.
“I am so grateful to have been able to help and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again,” she says.
“All in all a very humbling and incredibly moving experience to be a part of, words don’t seem to do it justice.”
Yesterday morning no whales were found stranded, and whales that were in the area on Sunday were last seen late in the day about 6 km offshore, swimming towards Separation Point at the northern end of Abel Tasman National Park.
DOC have decided that the dead whales will be moved with a digger further up Farewell Spit to the area of the nature reserve that is not open to the public, off the shore and into the dunes.