Figures in wetsuits run up and down the beach, clutching buckets of water.
“Mind the tail!” someone shouts out. “Over here!” cries another voice over the constant sound of waves. There is a sense of urgency, but people are smiling and laughing.
A huge, black pilot whale lies on that sand. Volunteers have dug around its tail and fins, and large green sheets protect its back from the sun. The whale seems unfazed by the hubbub, its dopey white eyes staring fixedly along the beach.
This is Mark: a life-size, custom-made inflatable whale and the brainchild of Ingrid Albion, who trains volunteers and staff for the Department Of Primary Industries, Parks, Water And Environment (DPIPWE) to be rescue-ready for the next mass whale stranding.
Mark is actually her second blow up whale — the first one was called Belt.
“He was made from conveyor belts. He used to fall apart all the time,” she says.
Mark is far tougher.
“He’s got compartments so we can fill him up with water and when people lift him not all the water runs to the head or the tail,” she says.
It’s a good thing he’s sturdy, Mark has a big job to do. He is here to give trainee whale rescue volunteers an as realistic experience of saving a whale as possible.
Tasmania is a hotspot for mass whale standings; at times, up to 1,000 whales and dolphins can become stuck on a beach. It’s not clear why, but, the proximity of the island state’s coast line to food-rich currents probably plays a role.
In the last five years, whale strandings have been blessedly rare. The downside of this is that communities lose their knowledge of how to deal with these events.
And everyone knows it will happen again.
This is what brings Ingrid and her team out to the beach. She is on a mission to get the island state ready for the next big event.
A community affair
DPIPWE coordinates rescues, but when a stranding occurs, it’s a community affair.
“And I mean community,” says Chris Arthur, who in over 40 years has probably attended more whale rescues than anyone in Australia. People lend machinery, boats, vehicles, time and muscle to the effort.
He reminisces about a mass stranding in King Island where everyone turned up, from farmers to school kids and hospital staff.
“Kids were tearing cotton sheets off their beds to protect the whales from sunburn,” he says.
Chris says it’s beautiful to see people coming together to save these animals, but he worries about the safety of untrained people who get up close and personal with whales.
When people discover beached whales in the shallows, they sometimes rush in to the thick of it, but this can be dangerous.
“Pilot whales are 4.2 metres long and quite a few tonnes of weight. So if they roll on somebody, it takes a lot of energy and a lot of effort to get that animal off,” he said.
Whales can also be injured by well-meaning rescuers.
Ingrid explains that whales breathe out of their blowholes, not their mouths.
Rescuers elsewhere have drowned whales by trying to get their mouth out of the water rather than their blowhole, she says.
While the dress rehearsal with Mark is a happy scene, when a real whale needs rescuing it is a hard and sometimes bloody reality.
“A lot of them are soul-destroying,” says Chris, who has also worked as a firefighter but finds whale stranding s more emotionally taxing. By the time volunteers arrive, some whales are dead, injured or badly sunburned.
“I have to be really hard with the staff about emotional attachments and go into palliative care mode,” he says.
When an assessment is made that a pod cannot be saved, volunteer involvement is kept to the minimum needed to keep the whales comfortable till the end.
But when a whale is saved, it’s a magical feeling, Ingrid says, describing the moment when the last whale joins its pod as “euphoric”.
“It’s just such an amazing feeling … Watching them all mill around, looking at each other and squeaking,” she says.
Intense social connections bind sperm whale and pilot whale pods, the species which most commonly mass strand in Tasmania. Both species hunt in deep waters. Calves cannot make the trip to the depths, so when their mothers feed, they stay on the surface.
Whales will take turns babysitting, fiercely protecting calves that are not their own. For this social system to work, there must be cooperation and understanding between individuals.
This system works well in the open ocean but can get whales into strife closer to shore. Mass strandings often occur when a pod is trying to assist a comrade in trouble.
People will often form a special attachment to a beached whale, Ingrid says, pushing for their whale to be rescued first. But whales cannot be returned ad hoc to the water.
“If one sick whale is put back out there, it might call the pod back,” she says.
Ingrid has heard of strandings where whales left in the water facing out to sea have called back in previously rescued whales.
“People can relate when they can think, ‘Of course, I wouldn’t want to go out to sea and leave the baby on the beach’,” she says.
It may take days before the conditions are right to get the whales out into the ocean. In the meantime, whales are “parked” on the beach, with their heads out of the water so they can’t call out.
During this time, their relationships need to be taken into account as well.
“If you’ve got juveniles, put them with an adult because it just calms them all down,” Ingrid says.
Whale calves will have a better chance on surviving if they can feed while on the beach, Ingrid describes how volunteers will carry calves to lactating females and then help them roll in shallow water so the adults can nurse the young.
Returned to the ocean
Back at Seven Mile Beach, volunteers learn how to shimmy “whale mats” under Mark. “Whales don’t have handles” is Ingrid’s constant refrain to her volunteers.
These mats allow volunteers to lift and drag whales along the beach.
Mark’s tail and fins are easy to rip off — and this is by design.
“We really want them to understand that you shouldn’t treat pectoral fins or any part of the whale as something you can lift up with,” Ingrid says.
After a fair bit of rocking and rolling Mark around, he is all ready to go. With a “one, two, three, LIFT” the wetsuit-clad Tasmanians begin to haul Mark to the water. They move in fits and starts and shout out as bare feet hit the icy water.
Mark is docile as he enters, gently bobbing as small waves roll underneath him.
The rescuers practice manoeuvring him so his head is facing the sand.
If this were a real rescue he may stay like this for hours or even days, tail in water, head on the beach, waiting for the right conditions for release — but today, freedom is granted more quickly.
He is turned around to face the horizon. The volunteers march him out until they are waist deep.
There is a cheer — Mark is saved.
Mark might not be real, but Kelly, who attended the training, found it an emotional experience to save him.
“You are making sure something is going back to where it needs to be,” she said.