Pilot Whale Stranding in New Zealand

//This post refers to events from February 2015 when we were land traveling in New Zealand, having left SV Estrellita in a keel pit in Fiji. I had originally written this for a non-blogging purpose, never did anything with it, and so am posting it here.//

More than 150 pilot whales were stranded on the beach and the call was going out for volunteers. Like many cruisers, we were using the South Pacific cyclone season as a chance to tramp and car camp around New Zealand. While the pilot whales were struggling on the hard, we were snug in our sleeping bags at a hippy rock climbers campground at the North end of the South Island of New Zealand, about 45 minutes away.

After an unusually noisy early morning in camp, we unzipped our tent to find the climbers campground was deserted -- an incredibly rare event at that hour. After asking around we found out about the stranding which had occurred the previous evening. When we arrived at the beach, we were happy to see a large crowd of volunteers.

Believing that there was no need for additional help, we went to the beach just to observe. Several tide cycles after the stranding, there were still about 60 whales on the beach and quite a few were already dead. A baby whale and its mother were still alive. The mother was struggling under her own beached weight while the baby was splashing in a trench dug around its body.

We came upon a team of people caring for a whale they had named Emily. The volunteers were cold, wet, exhausted and in need of relief. They gave us instructions on how to care for Emily and we spent the next several hours carrying buckets of cold water to cool her overheated core, keeping her upright on her belly to avoid crushing her pectoral fins, and talking to her to calm her breathing and to keep her from panicking.

Emily was severely blistered from the sun. She kept her eyes tightly shut against the drying air and blew fiercely in intervals out of her blowhole. One of her pectoral fins had lost a deep slice of skin from her struggles before she was rolled onto her stomach by volunteers. She had been draped in an old white sheet to protect her skin from further sun damage and to hold the cooling water against her.

I will never forget my turn at her head, crouched down in the wet sand at her side near her eye, talking soothingly to her. She had rolled slightly and we were trying to right her. We had sandbags to keep her propped up and in good position for the upcoming high tide but sometimes the sand would give, or she would struggle and start sliding to one side. While we were righting her, trying our best to avoid her badly blistered skin, her breathing had become more jerky, with the breaths coming closer and closer together. You could feel her pain and fear. As I began talking soothingly to her, she gradually slowed her breathing and began taking full, even breaths. I had calmed her and that realization connected me to her in a way that I will remember forever.

As the tide approached, surging in quickly on the long flat beach, the volunteers without wetsuits scurried back across the muddy tidal flats to higher ground. At this point, the difficult task of keeping the whales calm and in place until they had enough water to swim safely began. The Department of Conservation used special floats to first bring out a whale that they believed was a pod leader in hopes that the lead pilot whale swimming offshore would encourage the others.

New Zealand's Golden Bay has a long history of whale beachings. Although scientists are still uncertain as to the exact cause, the preferred explanation is that the long sloping beach combined with a large tidal range confuses the echolocation of the whales who cannot get a solid radar return on the low angle slope. The pilot whales come in, the ebbing tide rushes out and they become stranded. With up to 8 kilometers of tidal flats at Farewell Spit, even if stranded whales refloat on the next high tide, the long shallow beach causes the whales to have difficulty finding their way to deeper water and they often find themselves stranded again.

At sunset, when all of the surviving whales were floating just off the sand, the wetsuit volunteers grasped each others' cold, salty hands and formed a human chain to direct the whales away from the shallows and into deeper water.

Emily swam away. The Department of Conservation experts assured us that whales can recover from such grievous injuries to their skin. I hope so. The next time we are on passage in the South Pacific, sailing between island nations, and we are surrounded by pilot whales, as has occurred several times in the past, I am going to toast Emily and hope she and the rest of her pod always stay in deep water.

On Island Time in the Prairies

Back in Fiji
Island time is a concept that most of us are familiar with. It is a weird concept because it links a bunch of very different people, living in very different cultures, to a single vibe. On the other hand, most people that have traveled in the tropics would agree that there is something real to it.

I haven't spent enough time in enough countries to hazard a theory as to the origins and probably most explanations are nothing more than guesses.

Still, island time has seeped into me, deep into my core, and changed me in a way that became starkly apparent as I re-entered North American culture. I've thought a lot about this and tried to get to the heart of my change. I believe it is this.

I no longer worship efficiency.

In North American culture, it is an article of faith that busy people are important, that managing your life to pack more things in is desirable, and that idle time is wasted time - or at least only to be allowed occasionally, in a scheduled manner, as an indulgence.

We are so strident in our belief that being efficient and busy is the ultimate life goal, that we get angry at anyone who makes us less efficient, who causes us to waste precious minutes. These slow people are disrespecting our schedule, disrespecting the busy lives we lead, by failing to properly adhere to rules of maximum efficiency. They are too slow, in the wrong lane, asking the clerk a question - all signs that they are not among the efficiency faithful. How dare they?!

Now, step back and imagine a culture that values quality over quantity, a culture that does not worship efficiency, but rather richness of experience.

Rather than the slow person being in the busy person's way, this culture sees the busy person as being incredibly rude for trying to force their rush onto other people, as being flawed for trying to do so many things at the same time that they feel they must sacrifice the quality of their interactions and their experience. These busy people don't say hello when they walk into a store, get upset when things don't appear instantly - all signs that they don't understand how life should be lived. How dare they?!

That is the head space I am now inhabiting. I refuse to value someone else's packed life* more than my purposefully unpacked life. I'm not trying to slow them down, or get in their way, because I'm not a jerk, but I'm not going to jump/hurry/apologize to accommodate their rush either.

I force myself not to get mad when other people try to rush me. It's a cultural difference and my internal culture has changed. I even feel a bit bad for incredibly busy people which I know is a bit judge-y - particularly because I know that I am still rushed by island standards even if I am slow by N American. I try instead to be amused by the lack of eye contact, the lack of presence caused by screen obsession, the people who walk underneath the happy clouds without noticing them.

Efficiency is overrated for this hedonist.

*For most people I know, the packed life is chosen, but of course if it is truly forced on someone like a single Mom with a couple of jobs or whatever, then just like the islanders I have met when I was in trouble, I will go out of my way to help.

Why We Stopped Cruising

Because we were done :)

While we were leaving French Polynesia we realized that we had about the same amount of fun left in our cruise as we did money in our bank account. In about 3 or 4 years, depending on how many things went wrong, we would need to head back to land to replenish both our fun factor and our savings. We also knew that our various qualifications in our previous careers were evaporating and so it was a good time to think about returning to work for that reason as well.

At that point we decided we would start keeping our eyes open for work that was both fun AND lucrative. We also decided that if nothing had come up within two years we would start looking for work that was fun OR lucrative and in about four years we would start applying to be greeters at Walmart!

Within the first year we had a number of possible opportunities that were both fun and lucrative, some of which dissolved, one of which suddenly came to fruition. Thus, it was on a high that we were able to finish our cruise - still having fun, still having money, but seeing the end of both in sight.

One of the most interesting things about finishing our cruise is the variety of responses we have had to our stop. The friends who know us the best tell us they are looking forward to seeing what we do next. Many of our cruising friends understand why because either they have finished their own cruise or are seeing their own sense of completion and ending in sight.

The weirdest part for me though are the number of people who see finishing our cruise as a failure or a tragedy of some sort. I think that there is a strange assumption that when people set out cruising, it is forever and that when the cruise invariably ends, that there has been a failure to achieve a goal. I know a few people who are trying to cruise forever. I also know people who desperately wanted to continue cruising, but have issues that cause them to stop (health, money, etc). So, I get it kind of - some cruising finishes are not what the person cruising wants, but the vast majority of cruisers I know are out "for as long as it is fun" or for a finite period of time that they have in their minds even if they don't voice it publicly. They aren't out forever.

Photo by Ryan Lewandowski
We set out on an open ended cruise. We were "going cruising" and we would stop when "we were done". We had no idea what we would think of cruising when we took off, or what specific number of years that cruising would continue to be fun.

Toward the end of our cruise, we were both ready for a change. We were having fun cruising, but we were ready for some other types of fun.

With our years of cruising experience, with the new knowledge of what type of cruisers we actually were (rather than the type of cruisers we guessed we would be from the dock), we were ready also to change boats. Our boat was the perfect boat for our level of experience when we departed, for our ages at the time, and for our first cruise. It is unlikely our second cruise, if we take off again, would be on the same type of boat. We've changed in many ways.

Goodbye Estrellita

RV CLIPTAKE in Ten Sleep, Wyoming

A summit in Smith Rock, Oregon
I am in a car (a car!), towing a small fiberglass trailer (a trailer?), in the open prairies of Saskatchewan (what?!), and I'm sobbing.

They say that the two happiest days in a boat owners life are when you buy your boat and when you sell it. Six months ago I left Estrellita 5.10b floating at the broker's in Australia and I knew I was saying goodbye. It was a sad moment, that I marked carefully in my mind, as I motored away from her at sunrise across a glassy calm bay in our dinghy loaded with luggage filled with all of the bits and pieces that were our possessions. Carol was already back in Canada working and I had finished my pre-sale prep and Estrellita was a gleaming beauty. I said goodbye, shed a few tears, and boarded my shuttle.

Now that the boat was selling (while we were on a climbing road trip of course), I expected to feel relief and I did. While the boat was still for sale I didn't feel like I could truly close the chapter. I had a million things I wanted to write about but felt like opening a conversation would be too painful while she was still for sale. She sold, and I felt relief that I could move on.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
I didn't expect to feel such tremendous sadness. I thought I had said goodbye when I left Australia. Yet when she was actually selling I felt deep loss, a physical wrenching in my chest. I had a very real relationship with this inanimate object and that relationship was ending - we were breaking up and it tore at me even though I knew it was the right thing to do.

I also didn't expect the lightness and sudden freedom I felt. I recently read a blog post in which the author spoke about how the commitment of cruising closes off other options. This resonated deeply with me because as Carol and I discuss our long term future plans, when I think of cruising again, at the same time that I reimagine the delights I experienced on the water and in the islands, I fear losing the mountains again. Right now, even though we are in the prairies we are taking regular road trips in our wee trailer (RV CLIPTAKE) and my life has been full of peaks, of forests, of rock to climb. For all of the joys she gave us, boat ownership is a tremendous responsibility, and by choosing cruising we said no to many other ways of vagabonding and of living.

Carol (front - left) & Livia (back - right) summiting a Flatiron in Colorado
I have more odds and ends to say about finishing our cruise. I'm also going to be converting the sailing blog back into travelogue format. I'll be posting much less regularly, but our Giddyup Plan doesn't end with SV Estrellita 5.10b.

Video: A Taste of New Caledonia

It's up! Here is the 7th video in our “A Taste of…” cruising video series. A taste of the places that we’ve explored.

First, we posted tidbits from our time in the Marquesas, then the Societies, then traveling backward in time to British Columbia, then Tonga, the Gambiers Islands, the Tuamotus, and now, A Taste of New Caledonia.

One of our favorite places.*sigh*

SV Estrellita 5.10b is SOLD

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wauquiez_ad (2)((UPDATE: Estrellita has been sold.))

The one, the only, SV Estrellita 5.10b is for sale. Details and contact information can be found here at DBY Yachts.

This is a happy time and a sad time at the same time. We are excited about our plans and the successful completion of our cruise and we are very sad to say so long to our beautiful girl.

The true hero of our voyage has always been and will always be Estrellita.

I will write more eventually about our reasons for completing our voyage, but the short version is that all is well, that we will be returning to Canada and to work, that this blog will over time reconfigure back to its namesake (The Giddyup Plan) and that our vagabonding days are on pause, not over.