on Oct 03, 21

Looking after marine mammals across NZ’s coastline

Project Jonah, founded in 1974, is a marine mammal welfare charity that is responsible for rescuing and protecting whales and dolphins when they strand around the country.

They train volunteers all over Aotearoa to respond to stranding events and empower Kiwis to contribute and take part in making a tangible difference to the lives of marine mammals - dolphins, whales and seals.

Louisa Hawkes, Communications and Volunteer Coordinator, works to assemble volunteers from their network of almost 5000 people when a stranding event occurs. 

“If we have trained volunteers spread throughout the country, then we can get them mobilised  pretty quickly, get eyes on the ground, get basic first aid underway, and then if specialist equipment and senior medics are needed, we can start mobilising those as well,” she says.

“But really, we wouldn’t exist without Kiwis coming and doing the training and dropping everything to respond when there is a stranding.”

On average, 300 marine mammals strand on New Zealand beaches every year, with mass stranding events common in summer months. With just two full-time staff, Project Jonah relies on funding through grants and public donations to continue to do this important work throughout the country.

The organisation has recently received a bonus $6500 from the Good Registry’s public poll and unredeemed gift card funds, which Louisa says will be partly put towards the upkeep of their Wellington rescue trailer, one of many stationed throughout the country which holds the equipment necessary for volunteers to respond in a stranding event.

“Our volunteers go through the trailer after each event and take stock of damaged equipment, recycle items that can't be used anymore, and take equipment like dive tanks to be serviced,” she says, “and we've noticed that there are some items needing to be replaced, so we're going to be definitely allocating some funding to help maintain the trailers.” 

Marine mammals have stranded across nearly all of New Zealand’s coastline at some point, but Louisa says there are hotspots where they are more common, including beaches across the far North, Mahia Peninsula, Golden Bay, and Stewart Island.

“That's how we make the decision on where to base our rescue trailers. Strandings happen for a number of reasons, but sometimes it comes down to our really bad geography, which is where we see strandings recurring and “hotspots”, so these are often where we keep our rescue trailers,” she says.

Project Jonah also runs a 24/7 phone line for members of the public to report strandings or ask questions if they think a marine mammal is in distress. 

“We drop what we're doing to talk to people and then if it is a stranding, we'll pick up our gear and go.”

“We know that Kiwis care so much about whales and dolphins, we get calls frequently because people are worried, so we're here to help facilitate those concerns and get a response rolling if the need arises.”

As well as local rescues, the Project Jonah team also work in the education and advocacy space raising awareness, and are hailed as global experts when it comes to rescue equipment, strategy and knowledge required for stranding events. 

“I think, as a species, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to improve the marine environment, that's the goal, and part of that is being there for when whales and dolphins strand and need our help.” Louisa says.

“It’s about engaging the community, using whatever situation we have to try and educate locals and get them excited about marine mammals, but also bigger picture, it’s about creating passion and sparking action in people to do their bit and look after their marine environment.”

- By Ellen Sinclair

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