Whale Stranding (2011)     © Tim Cuff

Puponga Point, Golden Bay: dawn. A huddle of Department of Conservation staff are shuffling their feet peering out towards the sea. The gloomy half-light filters through the heavy cloud. As the visibility improves, so does the mood. “They’ve gone,” declares the astonished Incident Controller, Hans Stoffregen, interrupting his chatter on the handheld radio.

Where, just nine hours before, a pod of 84 pilot whales had lain, now only 14 black bodies remained. The survivors had re-floated during the night’s high tide. A Turneresque sun shot through a gap in the clouds and painted a rainbow through the driving drizzle. It only added to the tragic beauty of the moment.

Curiosity drew people over the shallow waters of the inlet, out to filter through the carcasses in a sombre scene. I photographed them, like soldiers checking the fallen on a battlefield. A DOC ranger found a baby tight against the rocks, alone. If it was still alive, as he initially thought, it didn’t last long. Two volunteers from the marine mammal rescue charity, Project Jonah, flown down overnight from Auckland, stood beside the body.

There have been mass whale strandings in NZ for as long as records go back (albeit only 1840) and in that time Farewell Spit has proved a popular and regular spot for the long-finned pilot whale to beach. But for several hundred committed, caring people – travellers, tourist, locals, as well as the staff from DOC – Friday, 4th of February will be remembered as the day they saved the whales...