New Zealand’s Department of Conservation discovered 416 pilot whales washed ashore on Friday morning at Farewell Spit, in what has been the largest whale stranding in New Zealand’s recorded history. DOC staff and volunteers have been trying to save the mammals since they first reached the South Island Golden Bay shore late Thursday night.

By the break of dawn, more than 70 percent of the pod had died. DOC staff arrived at the spot to save and care the remaining 100 whales, who stood next to hundreds of white bellies of their pod’s upside down corpses lying in the sand or floating in the shallows. A volunteer described the scene in Farewell Spit as one of the saddest things he has ever seen, The Guardian reported.

Whales in New Zealand
Stranded whales in Farewell Spit. Image credit: Ross Wearng/ Reuters.

As the morning wore on, DOC issued an urgent call for volunteers to drop work and school commitments and head to the remote beach. They were asked to bring towels, buckets, and sheets to keep the whales cool, calm and wet. Some 500 willing helpers from across the country turned up and tried to get the surviving whales safely away from the coastline.

At 10:30 a.m. volunteers formed a human chain in the water and successfully refloated the pod, but by low tide, in the afternoon, 90 out of the 100 whales had beached again.

Andrew Lamason, a team leader for DOC, explained that it was common for whales to emerge again on the shores after a mass stranding because as social animals they wouldn’t abandon their deceased pod.

Whales in New Zealand
Volunteers trying to save a whale in danger. Image credit: Ian McGregor/ Fairfax NZ.

“We are trying to swim the whales out to sea and guide them, but they don’t really take directions, they go where they want to go. Unless they get a couple of strong leaders who decide to head out to sea, the remaining whales will try and keep with their pod on the beach,” said Lamason, according to The Guardian.

Pilot whales need a matriarch or female leader to guide them out to sea. The pod’s leader could have been injured or dead. DOC staff has been on the ground for over 12 hours and have kept vigil over the whales, focusing on maintaining them as healthy as possible until the next high tide tomorrow. Some of the volunteers even sang to the sensitive giants.

While rescuers concentrated “on the living,” 20 whales had to be euthanized after being assessed because it was determined they could not be saved. Beached whales often die from dehydration, collapsing under their own weight or drowning when high tide covers their blowhole.

Whales in New Zealand
Stranded whales in Farewell Spit. Image credit: Ian McGregor/ Fairfax NZ.

Pathologists carried out autopsies on the carcasses at the risk of exploding in the heat. There are plans to dispose their bodies naturally at sea, read The Guardian.

Lamason confessed to the paper that whale strandings could be emotionally exhausting events. He advised anyone who wasn’t equipped to cope with trauma not to participate in the intense rescue effort while renewing the call for strong volunteers who wouldn’t break down easily.

A common whale stranding site

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale strandings in the world, with an average of 300 whales and dolphins arising in the country’s beaches every year.

According to DOC records, more than 5,000 of these gentle creatures have appeared in New Zealand’s shorelines since 1840, although the incidents don’t normally involve such big groups at once (only one or two animals) to which DOC staff responds about 85 times a year, as told by The Guardian.

Marine Connection
Cape Farewell. Image credit: Marine Connection.

The reasons for whale strandings are still unclear. Navigational errors among pods, especially when chasing food or avoiding predators, combined with other factors contribute to the phenomenon.

No explanation has yet been suggested for the whale pod stranding this time. However, Lamason concluded that the group had a difficult time swimming out of Golden Bay once they had entered because it was a shallow bay, as showed by The Guardian.

Source: The Guardian