Learn about the five stages that you'll go through when helping in a stranding rescue response.

There are five stages in a stranding rescue response. No two strandings are the same however, so follow the directions of DOC staff at all times. This can be crucial for your safety and the success of a rescue, and in many cases is required under the law.

Sometimes DOC staff will need to humanely put down animals – be prepared for this outcome.

If you are the first on the scene, contact DOC immediately on 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468). To keep animals calm, avoid loud noises, keep dogs and small children away and make no unnecessary movements.

To ascertain if an animal is alive, gently touch the blowhole, if no response, very gently touch the edge of the eyeball, if no response is seen, the whale is most likely dead. Dead whales will be checked and marked by DOC staff.

1. Immediate care

Aim: to prevent more animals dying, reduce stress, increase chances of survival

  • Stay clear of the tail as this can cause injury.
  • In suitable conditions (ie, not too windy), cover animals with wet sheets and begin gently bucketing water onto them. Do not cover the blow hole or pour water into the opening (to prevent this, wait until the animal has taken a breath before pouring). Concentrate on flippers and flukes.
  • If an animal is on its side: try to get the whale upright by digging a shallow trench parallel to the belly, remove sheets, and gently roll the animal into the trench. Ideally use at least 4-6 people. Keep flippers tucked downwards into sides, and once the whale is upright, dig small holes for the flippers to hang freely into once upright. If the whale is too big or suctioned into wet sand, do not over exert or cause injury to yourself or others.

2. Moving

Aim: to move animals to deeper water, to bring scattered animals together

  • Ensure all people are aware to avoid the tail and the mouth over the next stages, as these are powerful and can cause injury.
  • Moving the animals generally begins when water is about knee deep or more around the animals.
  • Only people with wetsuits should be involved from this stage on.
  • Coincide your re-floating efforts with waves for increased buoyancy.
  • Tarpaulins, slings or pontoons may be used to shift smaller animals, under the guidance of DOC.
  • Avoid moving animals over rough surfaces when not fully buoyant.
  • Do not tow animals by fins, flippers or tails.

3. Reorientation

Aim: to prepare the animals for release and decrease chance of re-stranding

  • Once in waist deep water begin gently rocking the animal from side to side. Have at least 2 people per animal. This should be carried out for as long as possible to allow the animal to familiarise itself with movement in water.
  • Bring all animals together so the pod can be released together. Wait until the last animal is ready for release. 
  • Reorientation time will vary depending on the condition of the animals but can take an hour or more. Subject to conditions, each animal should have had at least 30 minutes.
  • Assess whether the animal can:
    • surface to breathe unassisted
    • orientate and stay upright in the water
    • self-right if rolled onto side.

4. Release

Aim: to release all of the animals in one group

  • Release animals in water deep enough for them to swim but shallow enough for helpers to walk. Do not release until given the go ahead from rescue crew. A co-ordinated release will greatly increase the chances of a successful refloat. 
  • Any whales showing aggressive behaviour are to be avoided and identified to the person coordinating the release.

5. Monitoring

Aim: to prevent re-strandings

  • You may be asked to form a human chain parallel to the shore, creating a barrier between the animals and the beach. If you are, ensure you remain in a comfortable depth of water, and not above shoulder height when standing. Stay in line in the human chain. At this stage, animals may become defensive of the pod and may become agitated or aggressive if approached. This may be displayed as tail slapping, swimming close by, or opened mouth lunging.
  • Striking metal objects or slapping the water’s surface can deter animals from returning to shallow water.
  • DOC boats may be used to help herd animals offshore.
  • Be aware that animals can be groggy, disoriented, and can be very determined to return to shore. Do not jeopardise your own safety to stop the animals returning.
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