Hundreds of volunteers are racing to rescue hundreds of pilot whales that have beached themselves on the shallows at Farewell Spit.
The narrow sand spit, located on the north-western coast of the South Island of New Zealand is a known black spot for whale stranding.
More than 400 whales have stranded on a New Zealand beach and about three-quarters of them have died in one of the worst recorded whale strandings in the nation’s history.
The pilot whales were found Friday at remote Farewell Spit at the tip of the South Island. It’s an area that seems to confuse whales and has been the site of previous mass strandings.
Conservation workers and volunteers were hoping to refloat at least some of the surviving whales at high tide Friday. If that fails, they were planning a second attempt Saturday.
Volunteer rescue group Project Jonah said a total of 416 whales had stranded and 75 percent were dead when they were discovered. The Department of Conservation put the number of dead whales at about 250 to 300.
An official from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation said about 300 volunteers had joined conservation workers on the beach. She said rescuers had re-floated the whales at high tide and had formed the human chain to try to prevent them swimming back ashore.
Earlier, as they waited for the tide to come in, volunteers had tried to keep the whales damp and cool by covering them with blankets and dousing them with buckets of water.
Volunteer rescue group Project Jonah said 416 whales were stranded, and 75 percent of them had died by the time they were discovered. The Department of Conservation put the number of dead whales at 250 to 300.
The high tide gave volunteers their only chance of the day to help the whales.
Should the whales become stranded again, volunteers will have to wait until the next daylight high tide, which will come Saturday.
The Department of Conservation official said whale strandings occur most years at Farewell Spit, but the scale of this stranding had come as a shock. She said farmers and other locals were helping out and people were also arriving from other parts of the country.
Experts have different theories as to why whales beach themselves, from chasing prey too far inshore to trying to protect a sick member of the group.
Farewell Spit is sometimes described as a whale trap. It has a long protruding coastline and gently sloping beaches that appear to be difficult for whales to swim away from once they get close.
Conservation workers said many of the surviving whales were probably in bad shape and their condition would likely deteriorate.
Department spokesman Andrew Lamason told Radio New Zealand they were putting sheets and buckets of water on the surviving whales and trying to keep them calm.
He said that with so many whales already dead, it was likely that many of the survivors would not be in good shape.
Authorities were asking for fit and competent volunteers to travel to the beach and help with the rescue efforts.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale strandings in the world, and Friday’s event is the nation’s third-largest recorded stranding.
The largest was in 1918, when about 1,000 pilot whales came ashore on the Chatham Islands. In 1985 about 450 whales stranded in Auckland.
There are different theories as to why whales strand themselves, from them chasing prey too far inshore to them trying to protect a sick member of the group.
Farewell Spit is sometimes described as a whale trap. It has a long protruding coastline and gently sloping beaches that appear to make it difficult for whales to navigate away from with their sonar systems once they get close.