Hundreds of whales have died overnight on a New Zealand beach after a mass stranding thought to be the largest in decades.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) discovered 416 pilot whales had beached themselves at Farewell Spit in Golden Bay at the top of the South Island, with more than 70% perishing by the time dawn broke on Friday.
DOC staff and dozens of volunteers were on hand this morning trying to save the remaining 100 whales.
Andrew Lamason, a team leader for the DOC Takaka area, said the stranding was the largest in living memory, and although he had “no clue” why the whales had beached themselves this time, Golden Bay was conducive to strandings because of its shallow bay, which made it difficult for whales to swim out once they’d entered.
At high tide, at 10.30am, the 100 remaining whales were successfully refloated, but early in the afternoon at low tide 90 of them re-beached themselves. DOC staff and up to 500 volunteers are now focused on keeping the surviving whales as healthy as possible until the next high tide at lunchtime tomorrow.
Peter Wiles, who was one of the first volunteers to reach Farewell Spit, told Fairfax New Zealand that the white bellies of the whale corpses were lined up on the sand and floating in the shallows.
“It is one of the saddest things I have seen, that many sentient creatures just wasted on the beach.”
“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.”
As the morning wore on, an urgent plea was issued for locals to drop work and school commitments and head to the remote beach to save the whales, bringing towels, buckets and sheets to keep them cool, calm and wet.