After 300 Beached Whales Died, Rescuers Raced To Save Hundreds More

A stretch of sand in New Zealand was the scene of both misfortune and triumph this weekend as rescuers raced to save hundreds of stranded pilot whales after 300 others died in one of the countrys largest beaching events.

On Thursday, the New Zealand Department of Conservation detected more than 400 whalesstranded on the South Islands Farewell Spit, more than half of them already dead. Conservation officials and the animal welfare group Project Jonahspearheaded a mass refloating to rescue the whales that were still alive and guide them back to the water.

But over the following days, hundreds more whales from a different pod also became marooned. More than 500 volunteers rushed to save them as well.

All told, nearly 700 whales washed upon Farewell Spit in what is today the third-largest whale stranding since data collection began in the 1800 s, and the largest ever since 1985, the Department of Conservation said. Officials declaredalmost 350whales dead.

This post contains images and descriptions of dead whales that may disturb some readers .

Anthony Phelps/ Reuters
Volunteers try to help stranded pilot whales stuck on the shores of New Zealand’s Farewell Spit on Feb. 11, 2017.

Anthony Phelps/ Reuters
More than 500 people worked for days to help save as many of the marooned whales as they could.

The saga appeared to be over on Sunday, after the last 17 surviving whales successfully returned to the ocean and rejoined a pod swimming simply offshore.

Conservation officials praised the the efforts of the volunteers, who formed a human chain in the water at one point to prevent the whales from re-beaching themselves.

People seem to have an emotional attachment to marine mammals, Herb Christophers, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation, told The Associated Press. Theyve been singing songs to them, dedicating them specific names, treating them as kindred spirits.

Anthony Phelps/ Reuters
Volunteers form a human chain to prevent whales from stranding themselves on the beach.

Anthony Phelps/ Reuters
Nearly 700 whales were stranded on Farewell Spit along New Zealand’s South Island.

A pod of pilot whales can number between 20 to 100 animals, according to New Zealands government. The animals can reach up to 60 years old.

No one knowsexactly why mass beachings pass, but scientists speculate that some cetaceans means of communication, echolocation, may not work as well near land. Echolocationis not well-suited to shallow, gently sloping water, since they are generally opt high relief( steep) areas such as the edge of the continental shelf, the Department of Conservation explains on its website.

This would also explain why most mass strandings happen in summer, when the whales follow popular food sources inshore, the agency writes. Another theory points to pilot whales highly sociable behaviour when one whale loses its style and strands, its pod mates may swim to its aid.

Anthony Phelps/ Reuters
Volunteers at Farewell Spit worked to keep the stranded whales wet.

Anthony Phelps/ Reuters
Volunteers prepare to refloat stranded pilot whales.

By Monday, Farewell Spitwas clear of stranded whales, though officials were still monitoring a pod swimming somewhat close to coast, the Department of Conservation said.

The agency is now trying to figure out what to do with the carcasses of the dead whales. Workers spent the majority of members of Monday cutting pits in their bodies to prevent them from explosion as they decomposed, and the area was closed to the public, according to Reuters.

Anthony Phelps/ Reuters
Dead whales were marked with an “x” so rescuers would know they could not be saved.

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