Taranaki hapū Ngāti Tū are preparing for the burial of at least two of the twelve sperm whales found dead on Kaupokonui beach.
Last Thursday, eight sperm whales were found stranded and dead on the south Taranaki beach, and over the weekend a further four were found.
This morning Ngāti Tū and staff from the Department of Conservation (DOC) held karakia before starting to remove significant parts of the whales to prepare for burial, including the whales' jaws.
Ngāti Tū spokesperson, Bonita Bigham told Rereātea the event has been a huge learning process for the hapū and has helped to reunite them.
“This is an unprecedented event in the living memory of our hapū so while it might have been something or a regular occurrence for our tupuna mai rā anō it’s a new thing again for us today,” she says.
One of the 12 whales found stranded. Source: Bonita Bigham
Bigham says Ngāti Tū held wānanga over the last few days to learn about how to respond to the event.
Members from a local iwi Ngāti Wai, including tohunga Hori Parata, also visited to offer their advice.
“Yesterday, after Matua Hori arrived, he gave us a huge amount of knowledge around their tikanga in regards to this mahi and what it means for the tohora and what it means for us as Māori to restart claiming this knowledge- so that was a huge learning curb for us," says Bigham.
“We’re in reclamation mode of that mātauranga and we’re pretty excited about the opportunity and grateful that we’re here together".
Bigham says the hapū is still deciding what to do with the parts that they remove from the whales, but plan to bury the whales on-site at the river mouth today, depending on the weather and light.
Source: Bonita Bigham
Cause of death
Climate Justice Taranaki is questioning the cause of death and says it could be due to seismic testing.
Member Lyndon DeVantier says there is “ample research that demonstrates direct and indirect harm on marine mammals from seismic testing. Here, we had the world’s largest seismic testing ship, the Amazon Warrior, blasting off Taranaki from north of Mokau to Whanganui for three months, till around the end of March”.
But DOC manager of Marine Species and Threats Ian Angus says since the last seismic survey in Taranaki waters was completed on March 30th and "given the time that has lapsed DOC considers it extremely unlikely that seismic surveying contributed to the death of these animals."
"Due to the decomposed state of the whales it was not possible to do full necropsies. Standard samples were taken for scientific analysis but these are unlikely to reveal the cause of death. So, at this stage, we don’t know why the whales died and it is probable that we never will know for sure."
According to DOC, group sperm whale strandings on New Zealand beaches are relatively rare. There have been 13 known cases of mass strandings of sperm whales since 1895, with the largest in 1974 in Muriwai when 74 sperm whales stranded.
DOC is also advising the public to avoid the area where the whales are stranded.
“High tides and cliffs can make the beach extremely dangerous and heavy machinery will be operating as the burials take place,” the organisation said in a statement.