Over four hundred pilot whales were found stranded on a New Zealand beach Friday morning, about three hundred of which had already died before attempts could be made to rescue them, reports the New Zealand Department of Conservation.
“The whales were spotted in the water by a DOC staff member last night and found to have stranded early this morning,” said the Department in a press release. “A refloat of over 100 whales took place on the high tide around 10.30 am Friday morning. The refloat has been partially successful with around 50 whales out swimming in the bay. The remaining 80 to 90 have re-stranded on the beach.”
Four hundred volunteers along with staff from DOC and Project Johan, a non-profit conservation group, spent the day trying to keep the surviving whales comfortable, and forming a human chain during the refloat attempt at high tide to deter whales from re-stranding themselves. Working with the animals at night, though, is not allowed due to safety concerns.
The phenomena of “whale stranding” or “cetacean stranding” occurs at an especially high rate in New Zealand compared to the rest of the world, explains Project Jonah on their website. A number of reasons could be to blame, from the stranded whales being old or sick and not being able to keep up with the rest of the pod or fight currents, to being injured, to navigational errors. Project Jonah also explains that strong and complex social hierarchies may also be to blame. “In New Zealand, the most common species to mass strand are long-finned pilot whales,” reads the site. “Whatever the reason for the initial stranding, the strong social bonds of these animals can draw the rest of the pod in.”
The New Zealand DOC explains this is the third largest mass stranding in the history of the country. “1000 whales were stranded on the Chatham Islands in 1918 and 450 in Auckland in 1985,” they said.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Kath Inwood, a DOC ranger, said these kinds of events can be heartbreaking to see, but folks must do their best to move on. “It can be really quite distressing seeing so many dead whales,” she said. “People need to be resilient and handle that and then get on with what needs to be done.”