Authors: Des Hunt
There are three species of sperm whales, all identified by the bulging spermacetti organ that sits in front of the brain. This contains oil and is part of the whales’ echolocation system which is how they find their way in the depths of the ocean. The organ allows sound waves to be focused so that the whales can detect things at a greater distance. It was this oil that was much sought after by early whalers, as it made excellent, smoke-free candles.
The most commonly known sperm whale can grow up to eighteen metres long. They are the ones that tourists usually see off the coast of Kaikoura, a couple of hundred kilometres south of Whale Pot Bay. The other two species are the dwarf sperm whale and the pygmy sperm whale. The ones washed up on our beach were the pygmy species. There are more strandings of these in New Zealand than of any other whale. Unlike their much bigger cousins, they do not live in pods. Hence they usually strand as single animals. If there are two, it will be a mother and her calf. That was the case at our beach that day.
Nobody said anything as we walked over the sand towards the beached whale. Stephanie still hadn’t seen it, as she was too busy staring at the whale in the water. We were almost there when she turned and recognized what it was. Her hand went to her mouth as she stifled a cry. Vicky moved to put an arm around her and guide her the rest of the way.
The whale on the beach was the calf, which meant it was about the same size as me. It would be the mother out in the water. She was about four metres long, and she was swimming along the swells as they washed into the beach. There was no doubting that she had come ashore to be near her calf.
At first it seemed that the baby was dead, for it lay on its side, with its eye closed. There was no sign of movement. However, when Dad knelt down and touched it, the eye opened for a moment before closing again. It was alive, but only just.
‘Can we save it?’ asked Stephanie with tears in her eyes.
Dad shook his head slowly. ‘I doubt it.’
Stephanie stared at him. ‘We’ve got to try, though,’ she cried.
‘Yes, Steph,’ he said gently. ‘We’ll try. We always do. But it wouldn’t have come ashore unless it was very sick. It’s not as if it’s lost its way or anything. The ones that wash up here are always sick.’
‘What do we have to do?’ asked Milt.
‘Well, you and I should first go up to the house and contact the experts. Jake will go and get the baler out of the boat and make sure the calf doesn’t dry out. He knows what to do.’ He turned and looked out at the mother. ‘She’s the problem. We have more hope of saving her than this one. But she could get stranded herself as the tide goes out. Somebody has to get into the water and make sure that doesn’t happen.’
‘I’ll do it,’ said Stephanie.
Dad looked at her. ‘It won’t be easy out there. She’s a
big animal. I don’t think you’ll handle it on your own.’
‘I’ll help her,’ said Vicky. ‘Just tell us what to do.’
‘Stay between her and the beach. Hopefully she’ll be scared of you and move further out to sea. Don’t get too close, because if she flicks her tail, she could bowl you over. You’re going to get wet-through anyway.’
‘That won’t kill us,’ responded Vicky. ‘And if it saves her, it will be worth it.’
And so we were assigned our tasks. Mine was both the easiest and the hardest. All I had to do was get seawater every so often, and slowly pour it over the calf, making sure none went down the blowhole. The hard part was watching the calf die.
After the first lot of water, the eye opened and I felt sure that it focused on me for a while. The calf even took a few breaths, which gave me some hope. Then the eye closed and the breathing stopped. I knew that they didn’t breathe regularly, but I would expect a calf to breathe every quarter hour or so.
After almost forty minutes I knew it was dead, although it would take a stethoscope to confirm that. By then Milt had returned, but not Dad—he’d gone to the pub where he would meet the expert.
‘Is it dead?’ asked Milt as he joined me on the beach.
‘Yes,’ I replied softly.
He nodded sadly. After a while he said, ‘I hate seeing wild animals die. We’ve left so little space for them on this planet, that it’s got to the stage where every death is important.’
I kept quiet, partly because I didn’t totally agree with him: some wild animals were pests and needed to die.
‘I once watched a fox die,’ he said quietly. ‘It’s a memory I’ll never forget.’ He paused for a time, collecting his thoughts. ‘My father and I went camping for the weekend in the Cotswolds. We were hoping to photograph foxes. Unfortunately, it was at the height of the foxhunting season, and the only fox we found was one that had escaped being killed by the hunts. It was a vixen and she was in a bad way. There were puncture wounds along her back where she’d been attacked by the hounds. She had difficulty walking. I remember the way she looked at us, pleading for help. We managed to get her wrapped up in a sleeping bag and took her to a nearby village. The publican said we could take her to the local vet, or to one in a town some distance away who was said to be good with foxes.
‘We ummed and ahhed for some time before deciding to go to the local one, mainly because the other was fifty miles away and it would end up taking too much time and costing too much. The local fellow took one look at the vixen and decided that she had to be put down. What could we do but accept what he said? He gave her a lethal injection, and we watched her die. We tried to convince ourselves that it was the best thing for her. That was until we discovered that the vet was the master of the local hunt. For all we knew, it was his dogs that had injured her in the first place. I believe he killed that fox even though he could have fixed her. She died because we didn’t care enough to spend the money or the time to save her.’
He turned to me. ‘Now that I’ve got money, I’m never going to let something like that happen again.’ He pointed to the mother whale. ‘We might not have saved her calf,
but I’m going to make damned sure that whatever needs to be done will be done for her. That calf is going to be the last whale buried in that graveyard over there.’
I didn’t say anything. I wanted to agree with him, but I knew from past experience that the odds were against him being right.
‘So, let’s do it,’ he said, brightening and setting off towards the water. ‘We can start by giving those women a rest.’
We found that their efforts had been more successful than mine. The cow was now in deeper water, beyond where the waves broke. She was slowly patrolling back and forth, like a caged lion waiting for the gate to open. The two women were standing up to their waists in water closer to the shore.
‘How’s the baby?’ asked Stephanie when we got out to them.
‘Dead,’ I said, gently.
I expected her to burst out crying. Instead, she said, ‘I thought so.’ Then she nodded towards the mother. ‘She knows.’
Vicky must have seen my disbelieving look, for she added, ‘She does. When we first came out here you could hear her making funny clicking noises all the time. And she wouldn’t move away from us. Then about quarter of an hour ago, the clicking stopped. That’s when she moved out into the deeper water. Is that about when the baby died?’
I shrugged: how could I know for sure?
‘I’ve told her to be brave,’ said Stephanie. ‘It might take a long time for the pain to go away, but it will—after a while.’
That’s when I remembered that she knew about death and grieving. Her father had died in horrible circumstances. She would know about the pain of grief. So would her mother. Suddenly, there were tears in my eyes. I turned and looked out to sea so that the others couldn’t see them.
Stephanie continued, ‘I told her that it would be silly to kill herself. If she goes and finds her mate, she’ll be able to have another baby. It’s better that way than both of them dying.’ After a while she added, ‘I think she heard me.’
While I hoped that’s what would happen, I also knew that it was unlikely. Both of the other strandings I’d helped with had been mothers and calves. In the first, the mother was already on the beach when we found her. She’d died first. With the other stranding, the mother had been well out to sea, and we’d thought she was safe. We buried the calf and left her, thinking she’d swim away during the night. She didn’t. She swam ashore and died during the following day.
A couple of hours later, Dad returned with two university people and we went ashore. One of the visitors was Colin who had come to the other two strandings. He was a veterinary doctor. This time he’d brought his partner, Melanie.
After the introductions, Colin got down to work. He soon confirmed that the calf was dead and proceeded with a necropsy. This involved opening the body cavity, and cutting open organs to remove samples. While I’ve seen
lots of animals killed and gutted, it’s not quite the same with an animal you didn’t want to die. If it was tough for me, it must have been doubly so for Stephanie, who’d probably never seen anything like this before. Yet she stood there, supported by her mother, with a determined look on her face.
As the stomach was removed and split open, she asked, ‘Will you do this to the mother, too, if she dies?’
‘Yes,’ replied Colin, without looking up.
Stephanie nodded, and then said, almost in a whisper, ‘Then I’m going to make sure she doesn’t die.’
Colin stood up and looked at her. ‘It’s important that we do this, Steph. It’s one of the few ways that we can find out about them.’
‘Why do we have to find out about them? Why can’t we just leave them alone?’
‘Because, like it or not, we’re the ones who have the greatest effect on their lives. We kill more whales and dolphins than any other animal does. And I’m not talking about the ones that the Japanese whalers kill.’ He pointed out to sea. ‘They get killed all around New Zealand; caught in the gear that we use for fishing. The industry calls it bycatch, but they really should call it murder.’ He breathed deeply a couple of times before continuing. ‘Worldwide, we kill about a thousand a day as bycatch. But we probably kill a whole lot more because we’re removing the food that they eat. And that’s why I need to cut open this calf. To get evidence of what is happening.’
He crouched down and pulled the flaps of the stomach open. ‘Look at this! It’s almost empty. This calf has not been getting enough food. It’s almost a year old. It should
be able to feed for itself, but look…’ He scooped his gloved hand around inside and then held it up for us to see. ‘This should be full of squid beaks and there’re none.’ He fished around in the mess with his other hand and held up a coiled shell that I knew as the ram’s horn shell. ‘There are a couple of these, but they’re not the normal food for a pygmy. They would eat these only if they can’t get enough of the normal squid. This animal has died because we are taking too much squid. We caused this young whale to die just as surely as if we’d killed it with a harpoon.’
With a shake of his head, he went back to his work. We watched in silence, stunned by the intensity of his outburst. It was clear to everyone that he hated the task he was doing, as much as we, the spectators, hated watching him.
The shadows of the cliffs had moved well across Whale Pot Bay by the time the necropsy was finished. I was the only one who watched it all. Melanie and the others moved into the sea to check on the mother, who was still patrolling beyond the wave-break.
Dad and Milt had gone to collapse the fence to the whale graveyard. That doesn’t take a lot of work, as it was made to be pulled down: it was always anticipated that there would be more corpses sometime.
We use our boat tractor to bury them. The bigger ones have to be hauled up the beach, whereas the babies can be scooped up by the front-end loader. I heard the tractor burst into life while Colin and I were washing his instruments in the sea.
Half an hour later, the hole was dug and we were ready for the burial. They rolled the calf onto the scoop while I climbed onto the tractor. Milt joined me to stand on the axle for the short journey up the beach. The others formed a procession behind, just as if it was a funeral.
It took a bit of manoeuvring to get everything lined up so that the body fell into the bottom of the hole. Dad had dug it much larger than was needed to bury a calf. I knew why, and backed the tractor away without making any attempt to fill the hole.
‘Aren’t you going fill it in?’ asked Stephanie, after I’d turned off the tractor.
I gave a small shake of my head. ‘Not yet.’
I looked over to Dad and Colin, hoping they’d answer for me, but neither of them seemed willing to speak.
Then Stephanie worked it out for herself. ‘You think the mother’s going to die, don’t you?’ she accused.
‘Well, she’s not!’ Stephanie yelled. ‘She’s not!’ She glared around the group challenging us to contradict her.
No one did. Instead, Milt said, ‘Fill it in, Jake.’
So I did, although I didn’t run the tractor over the pile to compact the sand, just in case when I came back in the morning I had to dig it all up again.
I slept badly that night, and it wasn’t because I was worried about the female whale. It seemed that she was going to be all right. Just before we’d left the beach, we’d seen her head out to sea.
No, it wasn’t the whale that worried me: it was Scatworm.
While parking the tractor after burying the whale calf, I’d taken a sweep over by the track. At one place you get a view up into a bushy gulley. It was there that I saw a figure scrambling through the gorse. It was getting too dark to see anything plainly, and at first I thought that I might have been wrong; that was until I saw a black SUV turning around near the top of the cliff. It was Scatworm’s. He was back taking photographs again.
From the height of the gulley, he would have had many opportunities to take the photos he wanted. The discovery of the stranded whale had made us forget the decisions we’d made earlier. I could picture at least three occasions where Milt and I were together alone. If Scatworm had wanted to shoot Milt down, he would now have plenty of ammunition.
At some stage in the early morning, I was further disturbed by noises coming from the room alongside mine. It was Stephanie, and she was sobbing. This was the second time she’d slept in that room. On the first, she’d cried most of the night because of my stupidity. This time, Nature was the cause.
My heart went out to her. She’d probably come here looking forward to a lovely summer next to the sea: sunbathing, swimming, lazing about…Instead, she’d met the very worst that our beach could dish up. Just as she was coping with things again, her life had been rocked by another death. I could understand why she felt so strongly about saving the mother whale—she’d already experienced more than enough death.
When the sky showed the first signs of light, I heard scuffling next door, as if she was getting up. Soon afterwards, there was a light knock on my door.
‘Jake?’ she whispered. ‘Are you awake?’
I felt like saying ‘I am now’, but there was an urgency to her whispers that stopped me being flippant. ‘Yes,’ I replied, clambering out of bed. ‘Wait a moment.’ I quickly pulled on some clothes before opening the door to find her already dressed.
‘What is it?’
‘We’ve got to go to her. She’s in trouble.’
I didn’t ask who ‘she’ was, nor did I ask how Stephanie knew. ‘All right,’ I said, thinking quickly. ‘While I finish getting dressed, go to the kitchen and write a note on the whiteboard saying what we’re doing.’
She nodded and moved off.
A short time later, we were climbing into the jeep. She got in without comment; however, I’m sure she couldn’t help but remember the last time she’d been in it.
The eastern sky was bright by the time we got to the top of the track. Even though the sun had not yet made an appearance, there was enough light to see into the bay, and what we saw there made my stomach sink, just as it
had the day before. The mother had stranded on the high tide. While she was not entirely out of the water, she was far enough up for it to be too shallow to swim.
‘I knew,’ said Stephanie, sadly. ‘Somehow I just knew.’
‘It’s going to be difficult saving her from there,’ I said.
She turned and glared at me. ‘We’re going to do it, though, aren’t we?’
I nodded slowly. ‘We can try.’
‘We’ll try and we’ll win,’ she said determinedly.
‘Then we’d better get down there and start,’ I said.
The track was awkward for Stephanie. Her rebuilt hips had trouble with the steepness and the uneven surface. I had to support her for most of the journey. Yet she never complained, and nor did she seem to mind that I was holding her. I began to think that maybe this stranding could heal the rift between us.
As we walked across the sand, the elevator began to move down from Tarquins. In it I could see Milt and the two people from the university.
We reached the whale at the same time. Straight away, Colin pulled out a stethoscope and began to examine her: we watched and waited for the verdict.
‘Her heart rate’s not too bad,’ he said after a while. ‘A little too quick, but there’s still plenty of punch to it. I don’t think she’s been here too—’ He suddenly stopped talking and moved the stethoscope towards her tail, where he listened intently, before shifting it again.
‘Mmm,’ he said, lowering the instrument until it rested around his neck. ‘I don’t know whether this is good news or not.’ He glanced around the group, finally letting his
eyes rest on Stephanie. ‘But I have to inform you that she’s pregnant.’
Stephanie gave a gasp, covering her mouth with her hand. The rest of us kept quiet, processing Colin’s comment. Was it good news or not? If she died, then it definitely would not be good news, as the unborn baby would die with her. However, if she lived we would save two whales, which would make up for the loss of the baby the day before.
Stephanie recovered enough to ask, ‘Do you think that’s why she’s come ashore?’
He shook her head. ‘No, she would normally give birth way out in the ocean. She’s here because she’s still grieving for the other calf.’
‘When’s the baby due?’ Milt asked.
‘Hard to say. They usually give birth in the summer.’ He shrugged. ‘I’ll have to check to see if she’s lactating. If she is, then she would have been feeding the calf that died. If she’s not, she’s at the in-between stage that lasts about a month. It means that she’ll give birth within three or four weeks.’
‘How do you milk a whale?’ I asked.
Colin laughed. ‘With great difficulty. There’re not exactly any nipples dangling down. The calf can’t suck because of its mouth structure. So the cow squirts the milk into the water. It’s thick, like snow-freeze ice cream, and floats in the water. The calf simply eats it.’
‘Just like eating an ice cream you’ve dropped in a pool,’ added Stephanie, smiling.
‘Precisely!’ agreed Colin. He leant over the whale and began to feel underneath with both hands. ‘Ah, here we are!’ After a few seconds’ massaging, he stood up with his left hand cupped. ‘That’s all she’s got.’
We gathered around to look. There was about a teaspoon of milky stuff that was more like puss than ice cream. ‘This isn’t milk,’ explained Colin. ‘It’s what you get between lactations. She’d stopped feeding her calf.’
‘Could that be why it was starving?’ Milt asked.
Colin shrugged. ‘Who knows? The thing now is to make sure that the next one survives.’ He fished around in his pocket for a moment before removing a flat plastic object the size of his hand. ‘And to help us I’m going to tag her, so we can keep track of where she goes.’
He held out the device for us to see. ‘This is a tag I’ve designed. Up until now, tracking devices have been hooked onto the whale using a small harpoon. This one fits tight on the whale and gets taped on.’ He pulled out a roll of what looked like sticking plaster. ‘This has little steel hooks that dig into the top layer of dead skin. They’ll hold it on for months, if not years, and the whale doesn’t feel a thing.’
He chose a spot halfway along her back, between her breathing hole and the dorsal fin. It took only a moment to fix it in place. ‘There,’ he said. ‘Next we have to put in the ID number that will allow the satellite and us to identify her.’ He pulled out a thing that looked like a TV remote and began pushing buttons. ‘There we are. Now, whenever she’s on the surface anywhere in the world we’ll be able to track her.’
After that we began the difficult job of getting her back into deep water. First, we had to fit a canvas sling under her body, which required rolling her on to one side and then the other. After that, four of us took a hold of a corner each and tried to move her. Fortunately, the tide was coming back in and that helped a lot. Each time a wave came by,
we would heave for the short time that she was supported by the water. Sometimes she didn’t move at all, and at others we’d move twenty centimetres or so.
All the time Stephanie talked to her, telling her she was brave; how special she was, because now she was tagged we would know where she was; and how important it was for her to go off and get a decent feed to look after her baby. The words seemed to pacify the whale, for at no stage did she struggle against what we were doing. Perhaps she could pick up on the caring tone in Stephanie’s voice, or maybe she could feel our concern in some other way.
Bit by bit we moved her until she was afloat all the time. Then she tried to swim, but that just made her more difficult to hold, and the water wasn’t really deep enough for swimming. Yet we persisted, and after almost an hour we had her back at the depth she had patrolled the previous day.
We left her and waded part-way towards the shore. For a while she lay in the water with only small movements to stay afloat. Then she turned towards the beach and seemed to be weighing up her options. Finally she made up her mind, and turned her back on us. Slowly at first, and then with increasing confidence, she headed for the mouth of the bay and the open sea.
‘Bye, Pimi,’ said Stephanie, waving her hand. ‘I’d like to see you again, but I know it’s best if I don’t.’
‘Pimi?’ I asked.
‘Yes, Pimi. That’s her name.’
‘You mean it’s the name you made up for her.’
‘No,’ she said, shaking her head in a serious way. ‘She told me.’
‘What else did she tell you?’
‘Oh, lots of things. You’d be surprised.’
‘Yeah,’ I chuckled. ‘I bet she’s a real big blubber-mouth. ’
She pulled a face, but behind it I could see a smile. Maybe Hauruanui humour wasn’t too deep for her after all—I’d just have to keep working on it.