More than 300 pilot whales died after a pod of more than 400 individuals was stranded at Farewell Spit, a remote beach on New Zealand’s South Island on Thursday night. The 300 whales died overnight before rescuers reached the beach at dawn. The rescuers began making efforts to save the remaining 100 surviving individuals on Friday morning.
The latest stranding is one of the largest mass whale strandings in the Golden Bay area of New Zealand’s South Island in living memory and in recent history, according to local authorities, the Guardian reports.
Project Jonah, a whale rescue organization, confirmed in a Facebook post that about 300 of about 416 pilot whales that were stranded at Farewell Spit died overnight before the Department of Conservation (DOC) workers arrived at the beach on Friday morning.
According to the New Zeland Herald, the DOC said it received a report about the stranding on Thursday night, but officials said they had to wait until dawn because it was too dangerous to start a rescue operation in the dark.
Project Jonah sent out a plea to locals to come to the northern end of the Golden Bay on the west coast, about 90 kilometers south west of Nelson, to help re-float the surviving whales.
The volunteers brought towels, buckets and blankets to help keep the surviving whales wet and cool.
Images uploaded to Facebook show volunteers with Project Jonah and DOC staff caring for the surviving whales. A team of specialist veterinarians were also reportedly due to arrive at the beach to assist the effort.
“Efforts this morning will be focused on re-floating the remaining live whales at high tide,” Project Jonah’s Facebook post said.
The Guardian reported that at about 10: 30 a.m., at high tide, the 100 surviving whales were re-floated but by afternoon 90 had re-beached. About 500 rescuers began working to keep the re-beached whales alive until the next high tide, Project Jonah said.
“We managed to float quite a few whales off and there were an awful lot of dead ones in the shallows so it was really, really sad,” volunteer Ana Wiles told Stuff. “One of the nicest things was we managed to float off a couple and they had babies and the babies were following.”
Volunteers who first reached the beach on Friday morning described the distressing sight of whale corpses scattered on the beach and floating in the shallows.
“It is one of the saddest things I have seen, that many sentient creatures just wasted on the beach,” said Peter Wiles, who was among the first volunteers to reach the beach on Friday morning.
Pilot whale strandings on New Zealand beaches are common. According to Project Jonah, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale strandings in the world, with about 300 whales getting stranded every year. Most strandings involve a single or few individuals. But occasionally, mass stranding involving large numbers of individuals occur.
The cause of the strandings is not well understood but experts say that they are common in areas with shallow water. It is also believed that strandings are due to interaction of factors such as weather, disease, injury or old age. Pods attempting to avoid predators, such as orcas, may also swim close to shore and get stranded.
The fact that pilot whales move together in large groups means that occasionally a navigational error could lead to a mass stranding. It is believed that when a whale is stranded, it sends out a distress call that attracts others who also get trapped by receding tide.
Farewell Spit is notorious as a “whale trap,” having been the site of several strandings in the past. The last major stranding, involving about 200 whales, occurred in February 2015. Rescuers were able to re-float only about 60 of the whales.
In 1985, about 450 individuals were stranded at Great Barrier Island off the coast of Auckland.
The largest mass stranding on record occurred in 1918 when about 1,000 whales became stranded on Chatham Islands.
[Featured Image by Chagai/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain]