The army has pitched in to help re-float a young orca stranded on a Marlborough beach for more than 20 hours.
New Zealand Defence Force personnel have been digging a trench from the animal towards the sea at Marfells Beach, near Seddon.
The young killer whale, which is part of the dolphin family, was discovered about 11.30am on Sunday.
Department of Conservation staff, Project Jonah volunteers and medics have been working alongside locals since to keep the animal alive.
Project Jonah general manager Daren Grover said there were about 30 to 40 people on the beach on Monday morning.
New Zealand Defence Force staff, who had been working since first light, had already dug a 20-metre trench from the whale towards the ocean.
Grover said the best chance to re-float the animal was at high tide, about 2pm. The 1m deep trench would help given the beach was so flat, he said.
“It seems to be nice and calm this morning, so we’re hopeful it’s going to be ready for the next opportunity to re-float at 2pm today.”
The biggest risk to the animal was overheating. A light-coloured sheet had been placed on top of it, and buckets of water were being used to keep it cool.
Orca were social creatures. A pod of four killer whales had been spotted last night at nearby Port Underwood.
Grover said it was highly likely the stranded young adult, which was about 6m long, was a member of the pod.
“If an animal gets stranded, [the rest of the pod] will hang around and won’t go too far away,” he said.
The Project Jonah manager praised the response of the community, and various groups involved in helping to save the young animal.
“The response has been amazing, the community has stepped up and everyone has worked collaboratively and worked as a team,” he said.
DOC ranger Trish Grant said the orca likely got stranded looking for stingray to eat close to the shore.
She was not concerned about the pod of orca seen on Sunday night.
Anna McIntosh was one of the first people on the scene, arriving about 1pm on Sunday.
A neighbour put the call out. There were 50 or 60 people there by about 4pm, she said.
But the orca was not looking well on Monday morning, she said.
The orca had gone “quiet”, and the number of volunteers had dwindled off after the army arrived and dug the trench.
McIntosh said she had never seen an orca stranded in her eight years living about a kilometre from Marfells Beach, nor had neighbours who had lived there “for generations”.
“We’ve seen seals and things like that … It’s a juvenile, it’s not a fully-grown one so it’s questionable why it’s even happened.”
Volunteer Annabelle Latz helped on Sunday afternoon then returned at 10pm. The tide was coming in when she left just before midnight.
People put sandbags beside the killer whale to keep it stable and the efforts were “super organised”, she said.
A team of four people got buckets, four people put water on him and four people rested to take over if people got tired.
“Because everyone was doing what they were told it was a really nice atmosphere and really positive,” Latz said.
The orca was happy and relaxed when she was there, she said.
“The key is just to keep him wet so you don’t increase the internal temperature too much because that was the biggest concern.”
Latz said it was deemed too dangerous to re-float the dolphin at 2am high tide because there was a risk it would only get half way out to sea and co-ordinators did not want people in the water in the dark.
DOC ranger Chris Wootton said on Sunday the main thing was to keep the young killer whale upright, wet and calm until it could be safely re-floated.
“We’ve been through one high tide about 1pm [on Sunday] … but there weren’t enough people to actually move the orca.”
Wootton said the orca appeared to be in good health, but its body weight could cause issues if people tried to re-float it at the wrong time as the beach “shelves slowly”.
“If you go out about 100 metres [at low tide] it’s only knee deep … It’s been here for a fair amount of time, but the main risk now is that it’s tired.”
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