Naked in Nuhaka: Tipping Point

Published: Fri 29 Nov 2002 08:52 AM
NAKED IN NUHAKA: Tipping Point
Leo Koziol, Nuhaka, Aotearoa NZ 28.11.2002
Are we at a tipping point? Is whatever happens from here on out, no matter how ridiculously unimaginable, now actually possible?
* * * *
I got to work today, and my boss informed me that a 65-foot whale was stranded at Opoutama. I sat at work fretfully on a scorching hot day and managed to eventually get the chance to leave at 3.00 p.m.
I've only ever seen a dead whale once before, in Opoutama when I was a young boy. Somewhere stashed in my Dad's photo collection is a shot of me standing beside the morose, dead corpse of a much smaller whale, about 12 feet long with dried-out dark skin. A small right whale, I think it was. I remember touching it, and how my Dad said it would be smooth, not rough and scaly like the surface of a shark.
I pensively began the journey out to Opoutama.
Driving out, all I could think about was what I was supposed to experience: my environmental activist mind going in to work mode, empathising with this doomed great creature as my anger towards the existence of bad things like this bubbled up inside me.
I also thought slowly how the reality of the experience would be likely quite different.
I thought about how our ocean mammals -- the dolphins, the whales -- are intelligent, quite sentient creatures. With complex social structures, acute senses beyond those of humans, and a balanced existence with Planet Earth's great waterworld for what must span many, many millennia.
Opoutama's a hot spot for whale strandings. Located on a strip of land between the mainland and Mahia Peninsula itself, Opoutama beach sits on a "tombolo", or a connecting piece of land between a mainland and a large portion offshore. An isthmus, say, like Auckland. Mahia's tombolo is broad and flat and has been created mostly from accreting sands.
Whales many thousands of years ago must have migrated through the channel between mainland North Island and what then would have been Mahia Island. As the channel became shallower, the whales must have learned to swim around; but their sonar -- or perhaps their genetic history -- sometimes betrayed them, maybe thinking the low portion between the higher land was still a channel.
I arrived in Nuhaka, and I left with my whanau in a convoy of two vehicles. It had been a hot, dry and still day, but the westerly winds seemed to whip out a more distressing blast as we headed out along Black's Beach. Looking up, a strange patterned sky had formed -- what writer Witi Ihimaera calls "Schnapper Sky" so prevalent on the East Coast. As we crested over the hill, the mottled pattern above had formed a twisting spiral, strange forces of nature apparent in the air.
My son and I arrived at the Opoutama lookout, and we looked out towards the beach below where a group of people had grouped around where the stranded, 65-foot, sperm whale was thrashing about in the shallows near shore. She looked smaller than I thought she would, and not much was evident above the waterline. But sticking out of the passing waves was the unmistakable black tail fin of a whale, pointed up like a giant pointer of a shark or killer whale.
We arrived and stumbled down the beach past a good sized crowd of people. I got my camera out and started click, click, clicking. Taking the photographs made me feel detached from the whole experience. I felt uncomfortable being there. The whale was indeed large, but was far enough offshore so that it was still difficult to discern the full size of it. I quickly finished my reel.
The whale was lying on her side, waves fortunately splashing over her to keep her moist. But she had clearly been scorched by the day, and was not happy. Half out of water, the weight of gravity must have been slowly killing her, heart and internal organs pained, ribs buckling under the incredible weight. Her front was encrusted with numerous barnacles; this was an adult whale who had lived a long life. She would thrash up about every four or five minutes, enabling a full view of her size and scale. Her side fin flapping up and down as a signal of distress. Her back fin still incessantly attempting to right herself up. A small spray of water occurred behind her when she made this move, frustrated last breaths exhaled through her blowhole.
I talked with the local conservation ranger, and he informed me there was nothing they could do for her. He was looking for ways by which they could bury it in the sandhills behind. It would be carted up by trucks and tractors. The lower jaw would be chainsawed off, hung out to dry, and then gifted to the local iwi (tribe).
Troubled by this experience, my son and I wandered off for a quick swim over the other side of the tombolo, away from the winds. The water by the whale looked inviting, and I had waded in up to my knees a couple of times. But going out very far seemed wrong, seemed tapu.
At Oraka the air was still and dry. I had noticed low puffy clouds, almost fog-like, touching the crest of the hill above me. These had been quite visible from Opoutama, a strange fog effect caused by the unique landform, ocean, and wind patterns of Mahia. We went into the water to cool off; it was warm at the mouth of the lagoon and a swift current was continuing to drag outwards as the tide continued to head for its low for the day; no doubt heightening the whale’s burden.
We were away for about an hour, but when we got back she was already dead. We climbed on the back of our truck, and we could see that the tide had turned even further outwards so that the whale was now right on the shoreline. I wasn't interested in going down to the beach, nor sticking around in Mahia, so despite my son's protestations for takeaways I headed back to Nuhaka.
One of the theories of whale strandings is that they've found their time to die and head to a place they know to end their pain. I thought maybe the whale had cancer or a brain aneurisym, and that this ending was like euthanasia, a lesser evil that ends greater pain. Or maybe she'd got lost from her pod, was older and weaker, and knowing about this place chose to end it all.
Why was the whale beached on the shore this particular day?
As we drove along Black's Beach, I thought about her swimming back and forth for weeks, maybe months, thinking about ending it all. Enduring the pain, whilst us humans on the shore carried on our happy little lives, our everyday goings on. Her pain only impacting upon us when our world's literally collide, when the whale finds its final home on land, up here where the majority of its mammalian relatives now dwell.
The lowness of the tide at Opoutama had seemed unusually low, like the whale had indeed been biding its time. At Black's Beach it was more obviously so. The whole of the surf reef was above the shore, rocks sticking out. Black’s Beach is a small strip of steep sand, a rough and wild black sand beach. Today, it was wide and broad, with deep pools of water between sandbanks.
Today, it was different.
* * * *
The list of very bad things going on with the world's environment is a very long list. Signals of change in a world gone awry are obvious both through the media channels of our television and media, and by quite simply looking around us:
* This year, the Pohutukawa -- the "Christmas Tree of the Maori" -- has been in bloom in Nuhaka since September.
* "Super Low Tides" have been reported along the coast of the South Island and lower North Island. The current theory is that they are caused by super storms near Antarctica, which draw in warmer water from nearby locations. The theory is also that these are related to the impacts of global climate change.
* When I returned home last year, I endured a December and a January that was hot, humid, and wet. This year, we're being hit with El Nino, and its returned to the more familiar hot and dry pattern.
* Weather in Wellington is turning into Auckland's. On a recent visit, the town was muggy and damp.
* An oil tanker three times the size of Exxon Valdez sinks off the coast of Spain. A maritime economy is ruined, the tourists exit in droves, and a giant tankful of fish in a local aquarium are going to have to be evacuated. The full impact of this disaster will only become evident over the next six months.
* In 2000, a cruise ship full of tourists sailed through the waters of the exact point of the North Pole, the world's "permanent" ice cap.
* The new Bush administration has just released new legislation for power companies in the US that removes requirements for upgrading of fossil-fuel polluting power stations. Ostensibly, there is a long term plan for replacement legislation. EPA Director, former New Jersey Governor, and erstwhile environmentalist, Christie Todd Whitman hid behind a press release and preferred not to make a public appearance on this issue.
* The sunken oil tanker is a single-hull boat type that the EU plans to phase out by 2018. Its ownership is vague, connected to a company in the Bahamas, and with no easy target for liability litigation. No Exxon to bankrupt.
* Meanwhile, Australians are refused the right to protest on their own streets against a WTO committee gathering. Those who do, burn an American flag, as the Federal government cosies further up to the US.
* Sydney seems a place gone mad, as dozens of fires burn out of control around the city, security is tightened for the world Gay Games, and armed soldiers are posted on the Sydney Harbour Bridge (as they were on the Golden Gate one year ago). The city scorches in record 40 degree celsius temperatures.
* Security is tightened at the America's Cup base in Auckland. NZ Internal Affairs issues a travel advisory against travel to Australia. Kiwis visiting Oz are reminded to remain vigilant.
* The US Department of Environmental Quality releases its annual national state of the environment report. The chapter on global climate change and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, which had in fact already been written, is removed by President George Bush.
* NZ tightens its immigration policies. Theoretically, its about fixing the problem of business immigrants who can't speak English. But everyone says its really a response to zealot Winston Peters anti-immigration ravings. No one says that perhaps its a response to the econo-political situation of Asia suddenly gone awry. From Turkey, where they're preparing to post soldiers to keep out fleeing Iraqi refugees, to the Phillippines, where Canada and Australia today closed their embassies.
* An Asian "brown cloud" now permanently sits over the great continent, from industrialised India, from the forest fires of clearburning in Indonesia, to the booming automobile market of China. The cloud does not yet reach Australia and New Zealand.
* Argentina sinks into turmoil as it defaults on its international debt. Already, it has sunk into "third world" status. Brazil looks set to be next, as they elect a populist labour unionist as President. My prediction: he won't last.
* Former Vice President Al Gore issues a statement that President Bush is taking America “down the wrong path”. Meanwhile, the solutions he offers – particularly on the environment – seem morose and lacking in vision. He’s sold out already. Meanwhile, Greens gain in popularity in the US, leading to a Republican rout of all three branches of the government.
* * * *
Are we at a tipping point? Is whatever happens from here on out, no matter how ridiculously unimaginable, now actually possible?
A friend of mine up in Auckland is currently deeply concerned with one of his friends who is contemplating selling up all her property and buying gold bullion. She is planning to do this because she has been convinced by someone the world is heading toward an economic meltdown.
I am glad I am away from the intellectual noise and confusion of Urbania.
On the beach today at Opoutama, amidst the locals who have lived here all their lives, the home of my ancestors who have been here for centuries, the most striking thing about the tragic loss of the sperm whale was that it seemed commonplace.
Legend has it that a Whale, Paikea, carried a great Chief to Aotearoa upon its back. Whether or not this is true, or merely the stuff of legends, the fact remains that my people were in comfortable coexistence with the whales. They sensed a sentience, an intelligence, of these creatures that I myself sensed today.
Our Pakeha forefathers almost wiped out the whales in the great early hunting days of our nation.
But the whales remain, and persevere as they have done for millennia in the past.
And as they will do for millennia to come.
Tonight, following completion of the above article, my mother passed on an old story to me: There is a legend that says when the wind blows from a certain direction to Mokotahi (a promontory at Mahia Beach township) an echoing sound of whales is heard in Opoutama Bay calling and attracting the whales, which beach themselves there.
* * * *
PAST COLUMNS Are available linked from my website: All content (c) Leo Koziol & Rautaki Group Consultants 2002. The author can be contacted at email: Website:

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