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In 1983 after attending a stranding rescue and seeing a whale have its tail pulled off by a rope tied around it, New Zealander Steve Whitehouse decided that there must be a better way and set about designing a system to refloat stranded whales.
The design had to be robust, easily transportable and fool-proof, it had to be able to be used on a variety of different sized cetaceans and primarily it was intended for Pilot Whales which strand in large numbers and frequently. Initially an "off the shelf" inflatable boat without a floor was considered, but then discounted as unmanageable. Then came the idea of using a strong durable mat/harness linked to a set inflatable tubes, to be inflated with a scuba dive tank, Problem now was how and who would build it, it took some convincing some people that it would work.
With the concept in mind Steve Dawson and Liz Slooten cetacean scientists, who had attended several stranding rescues with Steve Whitehouse, were consulted for their input and ideas and to discuss any potential problems or possible harm caused. Chris Marks from Lancer Inflatable Boats (NZ) was then approached for his ideas and commercial expertise. After several meetings a prototype design was decided upon and the next task was to find funding and find someone to build it.
In early 1984 Invincible Inflatable’s (Graham Gosse/Paul Goddard) and Lancer Industries jointly built the first working set from inflatable boat materials. A set consisted of two inflatable 3.5m long cylindrical pontoons fitted with grab handles and quick attach/release clips, each capable of lifting 1 tonne and two 2.3m x 2m mats made from PVC, with rows of “D” rings. Inflation was provided by means of a SCUBA dive tank or manual hand pump. This first set was completely hand built, all seams being triple glued for strength, all stitching and places that could possibly cause chaffing and rubbing against delicate skins were covered by patches. One set weighs around 60kg and fits into a dive bag for easy transportation. These have been dropped onto beaches from low flying aircraft without incident or damage. Although the set is designed primarily for Pilot whales it is also designed to be modular and fit together, each set overlapping the other increasing its lifting capacity. Many large whales have been successfully rescued/refloated around the world using several sets combined, but this requires specialised training.
A funding grant was secured from the American Cetacean Society International (CSI) who were convinced from all the rescue experience Steve Whitehouse had that the design would work. Construction began…...
How to test it became the next challenge, it would be impossible to arrange for a whale to strand at a convenient location and time. It was suggested to travel overseas to "practice" on a captive whale but it was decided that we did not want to support this industry and to find a usable alternative. James Hardie Industries had just the item, a concrete pipe 1 meter in diameter, 4 metres long and weighing almost 500kg, lighter than an expected whale, they were approached and gladly donated a reject pipe. It was transported to and from test locations with a truck and Hiab crane and rolled into the ocean each time much to the amusement of locals and bystanders. A dedicated team spent many hours in the water in a variety of sea conditions trialling the set time and time again; the pipe was filled with sand bags to simulate the weight of an actual 2.5 tonne Pilot whale. Sea trails were done on hard sandy beaches, heavy surf, rocks and muddy creeks and every conceivable environmental condition likely to be encountered. The pontoon performed much better than expected and was found to be very robust and durable; this is evidenced by the fact that this first set of pontoons built is still in active use today. The continuing use of the concrete pipe proved to be a logistical headache and an alternative was sort., again after discussions with inflatable boat builders a full size 4m inflatable Pilot whale was designed and built, this was filled with water and weighed 2 tonne, it was fitted with dorsal and pectoral fins to make as realistic as possible.
In Jan 1986 an opportunity then presented itself when a large Southern Bottlenose whale stranded itself in a small rocky bay at Coromandel Harbour in Auckland NZ. This whale was deemed to be “unsavable” yet Steve Whitehouse was determined to show that the new pontoon system would work. It was delivered via a Ministry Of Fisheries patrol vessel. Steve and a small band of local helpers put the 6m whale into the pontoon and refloated it back to sea out a deep water channel, where it was then released and swam off unaided. This was the first time anywhere in the world that such a device had successfully rescued a whale, despite it being larger than design specifications.
One of the locals who helped was at that time a fisherman Mike Donoghue, who would later go on in 1987 to become head of the Marine Mammal division of the Department of Conservation (DOC) and become a powerful ally in the rescue of stranded cetaceans. Mike went on to represent the NZ government at many IWC meetings and international conferences; he promoted the use of the pontoon system from his experience of using it. He supported the use of the Marine Mammal Medic (MMM) programme and pontoon training and he and Steve Whitehouse went on to train all the new DOC staff New Zealand wide, every relevant officer received hands on marine mammal rescue experience with the inflatable whale and pontoons. DOC ordered several sets of pontoons for NZ stranding hotspots and together with conservation groups built a network of trained Marine Mammal Medic volunteers and equipment ready to help at a moments notice.
After the first successful rescue in Coromandel the pontoon was used on many other stranded cetaceans in New Zealand, a couple of minor modifications were made changing clips and rings for easier handling. The American CSI ordered two sets for Cape Cod stranding rescues, these were built and despatched (Aug’86) and immediately put to use. This was the start of many worldwide enquiries and lead to many countries adopting the pontoons and the MMM training programme as their standard procedure, many more sets of pontoons were send overseas along with personnel to conduct MMM training.
Reckitt and Coleman became a major sponsor and funded some sets and equipment, funding was also received from Cadbury Schweppes, NZ Telecom, Hertz Rentals, Air NZ and the UK based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, this enabled specially equipped whale rescue trailers to be set up in stranding hotspots and to supplement DOC equipment. These trailers contained sets of pontoons, water pumps and hoses to keep cetaceans wetted down, sheets to provide sun protection and other essential supplies for Marine Mammal Medics. These trailers were designed to be towed or airlifted onto site and have been copied for overseas use.
One sponsor was the NZ Aerial Mapping Company, they provided an aircraft to transport pontoons and people to anywhere they were needed at no charge, and these aircraft were also used to monitor refloated cetaceans after release to ensure that the rescue had been a success. This sponsorship along with Air NZ allowed Steve Whitehouse and other key persons to get to strandings quickly and to organise a rescue effectively, increasing success rates. Key animals were placed into pontoons to “lure” the others offshore, but recognising which “key” whales needed to be selected and placed into pontoons requires experience and specialised training provided by the MMM course.
Because of the pontoons modular design several sets can be linked together and used on larger whales to provide enough buoyancy, this has been done on many occassions but requires specialist training. Orca, Minke, Humpback, Sei, Bryde's, Bottlenose and Sperm and Beaked whales have all been successfully refloated in various locations world wide. In the United Kingdom British Divers Marine Life Rescue have a scaled down version especially for dolphin sized rescues. Pontoons have also been used to rescue stranded Sunfish and Manta Rays and salvage sunken vessels.
The Marine Mammal Medic programme and inflatable pontoons are currently in use in 13 countries world wide. They have become the standard piece of rescue equipment used by many "save the whale" organisations world wide.The pontoons are presently manufactured in the UK and Australia using ultra sonic welding techniques making them almost indestructible and have been attributed to saving thousands of marine mammal lives since their inception.