In March 2008 in New Zealand, Department of Conservation worker Malcolm Smith was alerted by a local man that two pygmy sperm whales, a mother and her calf, had been stranded on Mahia Beach, about 300 miles north-east of Wellington on the east coast of the North Island.
About 30 whales are stranded on this stretch of coast annually and sadly most have to be killed.
Knowing this, Smith rushed out with several volunteers to attempt to rescue the whales.
Down on the beach, the team kept the whales wet and worked for more than an hour to refloat them so they could direct them back into open water but they kept getting stuck on a large sandbar just offshore.
The whales were becoming increasingly disoriented and tired, and as he listened to their pitiful distress calls Smith began to think he might have to take the sad decision to put them both down, saving them from a long and painful death.
But just then someone else answered the whales’ calls.
Splashing through the water came a dolphin, known by the locals as Moko. As soon as she arrived the whales re-submerged and Moko swam between the rescuers and the whales and began to lead them 200 yards along the beach, then out through a channel to the open sea.
In 30 years in his job, Smith had never seen anything like it.
“The things that happen in nature never cease to amaze me,” he said.
“I was not aware dolphins could communicate with pygmy sperm whales but something happened that allowed Moko to guide those two whales to safety.”
After her emergency rescue work was done, Moko returned to the beach to play in the surf with the locals.
Scientists believed Moko had become separated from her pod so had settled in the area where she was well known and was often seen playing with swimmers, approaching boats to be patted, and pushing kayaks through the water with her snout.
Anton van Helden, a mammals expert at New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa, said it was the first time he had ever heard of “an inter-species refloating technique”.
An extract from Animal Heroes, by Ben Holt, (Allen & Unwin) $20.
– The Dominion Post