Farewell Spit

Farewell Spit whale stranding February 2017 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Farewell Spit whale stranding February 2017 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

It’s our favourite area in New Zealand, the tip of the South Island with its trio of natural wonders: Wharariki Beach (the best beach we’ve ever found; see our post), the Pillar Point Lighthouse Track (a dramatic cliff walk—a future post) and Farewell Spit (a 25-kilometre sand spit and nature reserve). On February 10, 2017, we were reminded of its fragile wildness when more than 400 pilot whales (oceanic dolphins) were stranded here, where more than 300 of them bid their last farewells.

Don and Marg had told us about Farewell Spit. “Dress for the wind and cold,” Marg said, “and be sure to have lunch at the Paddle Crab Kitchen.”

The day we were there the sun was shining, the wind was calm and the restaurant, renamed The Farewell Spit Café, served great burgers and iced coffees. A perfect beginning for a three-hour walk on the beaches.

The Māori name for the big, shallow, hook-shaped Farewell Spit is Onetahua, meaning ‘heaped up sand.’ In places, the sand dunes rise up to 30 metres but that’s farther along where you’re not allowed to walk. (Most of the 25 kilometres is off-limits unless you sign up for a six-hour 4WD adventure-coach tour.)

The 25-kilometre crescent spit forms a “whale trap” for northerly migration (Photo: Google Earth)

Sun streamed through the waves as we started out on the ocean beach on the south side of the Spit, cooling our bare feet in the white-quartz sand. To the eye, Farewell Spit seems endless, a strip of sand that mutes into infinity. It makes the “I” feel fragile, exposed. Maybe because we were a bit wistful that afternoon, realizing that in four days, we’d be waving good-bye to NZ. “The end is feeling closer,” reads my diary.

I wonder if that’s how those stranded whales were feeling this week, for themselves, their juveniles and their pod members.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale strandings in the world and the one that began on Friday was the country’s third largest on record. Project Jonah says

One of the most common patterns with mass strandings is that one or two whales will initially strand. These animals will send out distress signals and members from their pod may attempt to help or mill slightly off-shore (sic) . A receding tide will then catch these animals out and soon the whole pod will become stranded.

Farewell Spit is a dangerous area for whale strandings. The tidal waves here can recede as much as seven kilometres. When that happens, 80 square kilometres of mud flats become exposed. That’s good news for birds as a grocery store of food is exposed, which explains why more than 90 species of birds find sanctuary here. It’s bad news for whales, who frequently become stranded and trapped in these tidal flats. As explained by Project Jonah, the shallow waters here can also cause whales to make navigational errors.

  • Gently shelving, sandy beaches may not reflect echolocation signals back to the whale, leading them (sic) to believe they are in deeper water. Combined with a fast dropping tide whales can be left high and dry

  • Some whales may use geomagnetic contours to navigate and where these cross the beach or an outcrop of land, this can result in a whale following the line of the contour on to the shore

We adhered to the sign marker, turning south and climbing over small dunes as we headed toward the shoreline beach on the Golden Bay side of the Spit, our long shadows tilting upward. This is where the whales have beached. “Where there is much light, the shadow is deep,” wrote Goethe.

The light was darkening to the colour of the mud flats and black swans, fading into the strand of tall pines on the distant shoreline. We put on our shoes and quickened our pace.

It’s a dark place now. A new pod of 200 whales has joined those already stranded. NZ’s DoC and a lot of hardy volunteers—young and old from across the country—are struggling to save as many whales as they can by keeping them wet, attempting to upright and float them out to sea—even singing to them—before night darkens and for safety reasons, they must leave.

While we were there and since I’ve wondered why Captain Cook named it Farewell. Perhaps because the Spit’s shape looks like the curve of a hand as it waves good-bye. Or maybe he meant it to be two words—“Fare well”—our hope for NZ’s whales, now, and in the future.


Magellan likes  this site (Moganews.com) for its excellent photography on this horrific natural disaster.

Project Jonah has more info on whale strandings.

Radionz.co.nz has up-to-date coverage too.

We’ve also been going to stuff.co.nz  for updates like this one on the whale strandings.

8 Responses

    1. It was such a yin/yang feeling when we were there: the Tasman Sea Beach so joyous; the Golden Bay side much darker. A lovely place for whales to frolic but fraught by a natural trap. It was full moon when this tragedy happened so the tide would have been more extreme, too.

  1. Truly a gift from nature, glad to see there are some limits in place as these sort of places seem to draw out the worst in us humans.
    Similar to “Take only Pictures, Leave nothing but Footprints”
    A shame to loose the whales, maybe Mother Nature is culling the numbers and is following the Master Plan.
    The site appears to be a natural trap, not sure if mankind needs to interfere.

    Beautiful pictures, the title had me thinking for a bit, maybe a final discard of a wine gone bad. ?????

    1. You’d expect that kind of joke from us wouldn’t you! Not sure if wine is allowed on NZ beaches though…And then there’s the blowback if the wind comes up.

  2. I agree with Diane…..

    BTW – I made the dinner tonight for the 2 of us that Dallas planned for Saturday night and I only messed up a few things……..You are lucky you did not have to try my cooking……I have been told that I am a messy cook……but I think it still had some flavor left after I overcooked things.

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