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Stranded . . .

Memories still fresh - half a century later - of horrific, mass whale stranding at Wainui Beach.

Contemporary and the vivid memories of eye witnesses looking back to March 1970 enable The Gisborne Herald’s Wynsley Wrigley to tell the story of 59 sperm whales stranding themselves on Wainui Beach and how an inquisitive Gisborne public reacted — some better than others.

Half a century has passed, but Guy O'Connor still recalls the sight of a 25-metre-long fountain of blood squirting up into the air from a whale stranded on Wainui Beach.

He was just one of numerous Gisborne people who ventured out to Wainui Beach after 59 sperm whales beached themselves in 1970.

“Looking down the beach towards the Chalet Rendezvous (restaurant) I saw a bulldozer pushing a living whale up the beach towards the dunes,” said Mr O'Connor, then aged seven.

“As it rolled around in front of the bulldozer, the blades were cutting rings around the whale's body like ring barking a tree.

“Blood from those ring cuts was squirting up into the sky, I would say about 25 feet in the air.

“It was a horrific scene. It's stuck in my head now. I can't remember what day it was we went down, but we never went back.”

Today many motorists drive through Okitu and head up Tatapouri Hill unaware of the great drama, which occurred on the beach 50 years ago.

In a formerly fenced-off section of beach- front land, under a grove of trees, is the burial site of the whales.

A sign, too small to be read by those passing by, tells the story of 59 sperm whales who beached themselves at that northern end of Wainui Beach in the early morning hours of March 18, 1970.

An unnamed Wainui resident told The Gisborne Herald he noticed the whales “early that morning and by 8am they were still coming in”.

“Blood gushed from the numerous wounds the mammals had, wounds caused by rocks, sand, others of their own species, or killer whales.”

Traffic officers were soon called to the scene as the public arrived in great numbers, and did so for several days.

“Cars at times lined both sides of the road for over half a mile,” reported the Herald of March 18.

The whales were not roped off and in scenes unimaginable today, the public were able to walk right up to them. There are contemporary reports, and memories recounted today, of people cutting pieces off the mammals.

Mr O'Connor said he remembered walking down the track to the beach from the car park at what is now called Whales and seeing a dead whale with its tail stuck in the air because of rigor mortis.

“People were using it as a slide and sliding down its back from the tail end.

“As my brothers and sisters and I stood there, a man went up to it and used a butcher's knife to cut out a triangle, like how people do with watermelons.

“He stabbed the piece with the knife tip pulled it out and flicked it down to his dog.

“I remember seeing other whales out on the low tide reef I now surf on.”

Former mayor Meng Foon was an excited Makaraka School student in 1970 when he went to the site of the mass stranding.

It seemed like there were hundreds of them, he said.

“They were huge like monsters. I can vividly remember one of our customers, with the chainsaw, carving up, I think it might have been bones, more particularly the jawbone.

“It was mildly stinky — maybe an offshore wind direction didn't give us the full smell of the decaying carcases.

“There were lots of buses and cars and what seemed to be thousands of people looking and talking about the stranded sperm whales.

“I can recall there were big yellow bulldozers ready to dig the holes and to push the whales in the grave.”

Mr Foon said visiting the stranded sperm whales on Wainui Beach was “a memorable event of my childhood”.

Dying whales suffered mutilation

SPCA inspector Mr A. Innes-Jones told the Herald, back in 1970, that he had received complaints from “outraged locals” about people mutilating the bodies, knocking out teeth and cutting flesh off whales which were still alive.

Some complainants said they would patrol the beach armed with rifles. Mr Innes-Jones said he would patrol the beach himself.

“These mammals are warm-blooded, have a structure basically similar to humans and are very capable of feeling pain.”

The Gisborne Herald reported the whales were between 15 and 35 feet in length and reported two theories for the mass stranding.

It was believed the whales had lost their sense of direction because of a storm and heavy seas, or that the leader whales swam toward the coast in a suicidal mood after a clash with blackfish killer whales.

Ministry of Works (MoW) resident engineer Mr P.H. Fisher said about 1500 tonnes of whales needed to be buried requiring 10,000 tonnes of earth to be moved. The process was expected to take three days.

Burial was the only practical method of disposal and met the requirement of the Department of Health.

The MoW had planned to tow two whales out to sea and blow them up to test if that would be more a more effective means of disposal, but offshore winds meant the experiment was never carried out.

Instead the whales were to be buried under at least five feet of sand, said Mr Fisher.

First the carcases would be cut open to accelerate decomposition. But as the carcases were dragged to the burial site, bits of flesh and guts were deposited on the beach.

Workers also had to ensure the whales were dead. Two men, formerly employed by Napier's Marineland, were assigned that task. The MoW agreed to make available up to 10 tonnes of whale meat for a Wellington-based cat food company.

B.G. Hamlin of the Dominion Museum now Te Papa) was reported as warning about the dangers of whale graves. He said that as whales decomposed, they left a cavity in the ground. In the bottom of the cavity would be fats and oils with a strong acid content and a foul smell, which could take a long time to disappear. It was possible that a car, or another heavy item, could crash through the crust of the earth and into the cavity, which was once the whale's body.

He said that about 10 years before, around 18 months after a school of dead whales were buried in Wellington, a car had fallen into a cavity filled with the remains of a whale. The car was destroyed and the couple inside the car required new clothes!

Any whale grave needed to be fenced off, said Mr Hamlin.

The Herald of March 20, 1970, said the MoW was in “a race against time” to dispose of the whales.

“Last night some of the carcases split open and spewed the innards on to the sand, adding to the stench that is quickly pervading the area.”

Mr Fisher said the beach was going to be severely polluted with blood, bits of flesh and a foul smell for a long time.

He said two tractor scrapers, four bulldozers and an Euclid scraper were working on site moving the whales or burying them.

“We hope the hole is big enough, even though it sounds huge, 500 feet in length, 30 feet in width at base, and up to 15 feet in depth.”

The stench would become “overpowering” as the day became warmer.

Workers, equipped with breathing apparatus, used water mixed with deodorant to spray on the rotting carcases. They started work as early as 6.30am and on the day after the stranding worked until 10pm.

On March 21 the Herald reported the last two or three whales were being pushed together for burial.

The following week, the “senior children” of Wainui Beach School's room 1, in a Letter to the Editor, suggested the burial site be named Whale Grove and include a statute of a whale to remind the public of what happened there and to attract tourists.

World's largest whale stranding

Approximately 1000 whales beached themselves in the Chatham Islands in 1918 in what is believed to be the largest-ever stranding anywhere in the world.

That New Zealand holds the record is no surprise when it is considered the country has one of the highest stranding rates in the world. On average, about 300 dolphins and whales strand each year.

Unfortunately, mass strandings relatively common

Most strandings are of individual animals, but mass strandings are common and can involve hundreds of animals at a time.

Since 1840, more than 5000 strandings of whales and dolphins have been recorded around the New Zealand coast.

Strandings occur all year round and usually involve just one or two animals.

Major hotspots for strandings include the Chatham Islands, Whangarei, Hawke Bay and Farewell Spit.

A stranding of several hundred whales at Puponga, Farewell Spit, in March 1911, included a rare all-white whale.

The most famous albino whale was a sperm whale encountered by whalers off the coast of Chile in the early 19th century.

He was named Mocha Dick after the island of Mocha in Chile where he was first spotted.

The whale was later immortalised as Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

The real Moby Dick reportedly destroyed more than 20 whaling ships and escaped another 80 before being killed 28 years after he was originally sighted.

The cause of whale strandings is uncertain and there are many reasons why dolphins and whales may strand.

Those possible reasons include:

' Whales may be old, sick or injured and disorientated.

' Calving whales will often seek out sheltered bays to give birth and may come too close to shore.

' Underwater explosions caused by sonar, seismic testing or underwater sea quakes can damage their hearing and affect their ability to communicate, hunt and navigate.

' When chasing prey or avoiding predators, whales may accidentally beach themselves.

' Some whales may use geomagnetic contours to navigate and where these cross the beach or an outcrop of land, this can result in beaching.

Unfamiliar coastal configuration or unusual weather patterns, particularly electrical storms, may also cause whales to strand.

' The strong social bonding of some species of whales can cause mass strandings. Whales that strand in groups are usually deep water species with highly-evolved social structures. In New Zealand, the most common species to mass strand are long-finned pilot whales. Whatever the reason for the initial stranding, the strong social bonds of these animals can draw the rest of the pod in.

' One of the most common patterns with mass strandings is that one or two whales will initially strand. These animals will send out distress signals and members from their pod may attempt to help or mill slightly off-shore. A receding tide will then catch these animals out and soon the whole pod will become stranded.

BEACHED: A small proportion of the vast numbers of people who went out to Wainui to look at the dead and dying whales. File pictures
CLOSE ENCOUNTER: Children get up close to some of the 59 stranded whales on Wainui Beach.
TOUGH JOB: A Ministry of Works employee wearing breathing apparatus because of the horrendous smell of 59 deceased whales looks on as one of the mammals is buried.
CROWDS: The sight at Wainui Beach 50 years ago.