Rescuers work to save false killer whales in Flinders Bay in July 1986. Picture: Nic Ellis

It was a bitterly cold winter's morning, but when word spread of what was unfolding on a beach at Augusta the response was immediate.

Volunteers came from near and far in a desperate bid to help dozens of whales which had beached themselves just west of the mouth of the Blackwood River.

They poured water over the stricken false killer whales to keep them moist, they sat with them in the shallows and they tried to refloat them back into the ocean, to no avail.

It soon became apparent that the task ahead was massive.

And so began a rescue operation that would stretch into three days and set what became a benchmark for how to handle such mass strandings.

Augusta locals Rebecca Lonnie, Donna Adams and Les Challis look back on the rescue this week. Picture: Nic Ellis

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the big Augusta whale rescue, and it is still remembered fondly by those involved.

The false killer whales beached themselves at Town Beach on July 30, 1986.

Les Challis, now 70, said he got a phone call about 6am at his home in Kudardup, near Augusta, from a mate.

"He said 'Les, you are not going to believe this, there's a bunch of whales stranded on the beach'," Mr Challis said.

He drove to the beach and took to the water in a borrowed wetsuit.

"We started pushing them out but it was futile," Mr Challis said.

"They just came back."

He stayed in the water for more than an hour and then realised he had lost all feeling from the cold, and had to retreat to a nearby house for a hot shower.

Through the day others joined the battle.

Donna Adams was just eight at the time and she remembered arriving after school.

"We went down to 'save the whales'," she said.

"I remember coming over the dunes and thinking 'what are we going to do with all these whales'."

Rebecca Lonnie was in the same year at the local school and joined the rescue, too.

"We poured water on them and stroked them," she said.

"We were told it calmed them down."

Rory Neal, a Conservation and Land Management ranger based in Augusta at the time, said when he arrived at the beach there were many well-intentioned helpers but their efforts needed co-ordinating.

He walked up and down the beach advising the volunteers not to try to push the whales back out but to keep them calm while a plan was devised.

Helpers were divided into teams and rosters were drawn up to make sure people did not spend too long in the icy water.

Front-end loaders were used to lift the whales on to trucks which took them a short distance along the coast to the more sheltered waters of Flinders Bay.

There they were kept from beaching themselves again through the night and, the next morning, an attempt was made to push the whales out to sea.

Some went but others became stranded, forcing the operation into a second night and third day, when the last whales, flanked by board riders, were shepherded out of the bay.

Mr Neal, now retired, said the town had responded magnificently and volunteers had helped by going in the water as well as providing food, hot soup and warm clothing.

"The whole world took note of how it was done," he said.

Of 114 stranded whales, 96 were saved.

Rescuers shepherd the whales out to sea in 1986. Picture: Nic Ellis

The West Australian

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