The whale story continues: becoming marine mammal medic in Kaikoura

Over 300 whales become stranded in NZ every year. I want to help.

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Four months ago my life was changed forever.

While hiking on a very remote part of Stewart Island, I stumbled upon a scene of horror at sunset, several pods of 150 pilot whales beaching themselves in the shallow surf. Far from help, we did all that we could, but they ultimately all died.

Their cries haunt my dreams and still wake me up at night. I have nightmares about their bodies left to the sands on that beach, all alone.

How could I not help them? Why couldn’t I save them?

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

Us humans have done so much harm to our oceans but also have created so many impossible things and built so many incredible machines.

We’ve sent men to the moon and taken photos of a black hole for the first time. We have magical underwater internet cables all around the world. How could we not save some whales? How could I not even call for help?

We should have been able to save them.

It makes me SO FUCKING MAD that we only prioritize science for profit. Why don’t we dedicate the billions of dollars that go into military funding like underwater naval mock battles or seismic blasting in our oceans instead of trying to figure out why whales keep beaching themselves and how we can prevent it?

WE STILL DON’T HAVE THE ANSWERS. ok, all caps, I’m pissed. Calm down, Liz.

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

But seriously, look at those four photos I just shared above. That was hell. Taking those photos was hell and killed part of my soul. The only reason I even took a few images of the stranding was because I knew deep down that this would become part of my story, and I would need them down the road.

Part of me died that day on the beach with those whales, and caused a wound so deep I’m only starting to recover from it.

I never want to experience that fear, helplessness, anger and grief again. The ghosts of 150 beautiful pilot whales walk with me everyday: mothers, babies, brothers, sisters, fathers, all gone but not forgotten, at least to me.

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

My experience with the whales was a catalyst for a massive breakdown for me, in which all my issues with control and being able to handle situations exploded, rendering me almost useless for months.

I spiraled into a deep depression, pushing everyone away from me, wallowing and unable to get the most basic tasks done. I stopped sleeping again and became the poster child for a millennial burnout.

My exhaustion consumed me. I realized I couldn’t do it all, and I had to ask for help when I needed it, which I did.

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

So what can I do now? What does that have to do with whales, Liz?

Last weekend I took the first step to becoming stronger by becoming a marine mammal medic in Kaikoura with Project Jonah, a New Zealand charity that’s been saving whales since 1974. Alongside the Department of Conservation (DOC), they are dedicated to protecting marine mammals here in New Zealand.

Half of the world’s whales and dolphins species are found in New Zealand, and there is a high rate of strandings here, averaging over 300 per year. They need our help.

New Zealand is a hotspot for whale strandings and has a handful of places where whales regularly strand, like on Stewart Island where I was and famously on Farewell Spit.

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

After my experience with the whales on Stewart Island, it was Project Jonah, DOC, and even the New Zealand police (!!) who looked after me, calling me and checking in on me when I was feeling blue. The support I received over those tough few weeks as I began to come to terms with my experience.

Once I began to feel better, I realized I had a difficult choice ahead of me: either ignore what I experienced with the whales and bury those horrible memories and move on with my life, or embrace the pain and use it as foundation to make a change in the world.

I am not one of those “airy-fairy” people who believes in fate or whatever *eye rolls* but honestly, I really think it was fate that put me on that beach with those whales. What are the chances someone was even there, let alone ME?!

Now I truly feel like it’s my duty now to share what I went through and do my part to make sure that no one is ever in my position again.

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

So I booked a flight to Christchurch, rented a car, and drove up to Kaikoura for the weekend, where I was able to attend one of Project Jonah’s marine mammal medic courses. Yes, it’s a thing.

With so many strandings happening every year, Project Jonah and DOC rely on trained volunteers (marine mammal medics) to help with the rescues and re-floating of stranded whales.

You spend the morning in the classroom learning about whales and dolphins and some of the reasons why they strand, along with the rescue techniques used at a stranding. In the afternoon, you’ll pull on a wetsuit and hit the beach for the practical part of the course, practicing what we’ve learned on life size inflatable whales and dolphins (filled with water to make them life-weight too) as well as using real rescue equipment on them.

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

By the end of Project Jonah Marine Mammal Medic course you’ll be trained to:

  • Assist in the rescue of stranded dolphins and whales
  • Act as a role model to untrained rescuers
  • After the course you’ll be issued with a marine mammal medic card and added to our national database for future stranding call-outs.

Be sure to subscribe to Project Jonah’s newsletter so you can sign up for the next course. I truly believe along with Project Jonah, that everyone person who lives in New Zealand should do this course and be better prepared for strandings.

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

It was so hard to relive those memories but now I feel one step closer to not being helpless and ignorant with strandings and I hope I can begin to do my part in saving and protecting these amazing creatures.

I realized that while I did a lot of things wrong when I stumbled across those whales on Stewart Island, like trying to grab them by their tails, I also realized I did the right thing by sending my partner at the time off running 20 kilometers to find DOC rangers.

I’m still coming to terms with the fact that there was nothing anyone could have done to save those whales I found, so many factors were not in their favor, mostly due to the sheer remoteness and access difficulty of where I found them, I feel a lot more secure in the knowledge I took away from this course that I can be of help in future strandings.

Which leads me to my next point – I need your help.

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

While I’ve always loved whales and marine mammals (I mean, what’s not to love? They are pretty incredible!) I now feel like whales are part of my story and I want to spend more time with them, and hopefully not just at whale strandings as a volunteer. I want to spend time with them in the water, learning about them and studying them.

Please if you know anyone who works with whales or dolphins or has experience in this area, scientists, biologists, rangers, or just fellow whale lovers, please let me know.

I’m really thinking about heading up to Tonga this winter to swim with the Humpback whales during their migration, but please let me know of other opportunities, places, books, movies, anything about whales where I can further my knowledge. And please connect me with fellow whale people!

Thank you and ngā mihi.

Liz xx

Report whale or dolphin strandings to the DOC emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT or to Project Jonah 0800 4 WHALE

Do you spend time at the ocean and love whales and dolphins too? Is this something you’d be keen to learn more about? Share!

volunteer whale stranding new zealand

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15 Comments on “The whale story continues: becoming marine mammal medic in Kaikoura

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  1. Hi Liz,
    I admire your strength and convictions. You definitely walk the talk. Sorry that the whale strandings affected you badly but I believe it was fate as well. Have you contacted Dr Ingrid Visser, founder of Orca Research Trust. Her website is She’s based in Tutukaka, Northland.

    All the best and take care.


  2. Hi Liz!

    I’ve spent more than 10 years working around or with animals, including 4 teaching about marine mammals. I’ve also done a humpback whale swim and can give you some tips on respectful places to do it.

    Shoot me an email if you’re interested in chatting further!


  3. Hi Liz! Long time lurker here. I also happen to be a climate-related scientist, researching ice-ocean interactions in the Southern Ocean. I’d be happy to chat with you a bit (via email?) about possible options for getting more involved with whales and science. Depending on your interest, you could pursue a (higher) degree in marine biology, with a focus on whales, or you could get in science communication, policy, or advocacy work. I’m not an expert in whales, specifically, but I may be able to connect you to a whale-studying scientist. I can at least give you some more information on your options.

    Best of luck with your future whale adventures!

    1. Hi! Yay that is great to hear, I’m super interested in what you’re studying too. I’d love to chat over email, mine is Liz at youngadventures dot com —

  4. I can’t stretch this enough, although I’ve told you multiple times already: I think you’re an incredible strong person and it’s amazing how you handle this trauma and all the issues coming with it <3

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