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Hundreds of whales die stranded on remote New Zealand beach


More than 400 whales were stranded on a New Zealand beach Friday, with most of them dying quickly as frustrated volunteers desperately raced to save the survivors.

Hundreds of whales die stranded on remote New Zealand beach
Pilot whales, which beached themselves, at Farewell Spit in the Golden Bay region at the northern tip
 of New Zealand's South Island on February 10, 2017 [Credit: AFP]
It was one of the largest mass beachings recorded in New Zealand, where strandings are relatively common, the Department of Conservation said.

Andrew Lamason, the department's regional manager, said 416 pilot whales swam ashore at Farewell Spit in the Golden Bay region, on the northern tip of South Island.

About 70 percent had perished by the time wildlife officers reached the remote location and about 500 volunteers pitched in to get the remaining whales offshore.

However, he conceded the outlook was gloomy and by late afternoon the majority of the 100-plus whales that were refloated at high tide had swam back ashore.

"With that number dead, you have to assume that the rest are in reasonably poor nick as well," he told Radio New Zealand.

"So we're sort of preparing ourselves for a pretty traumatic period ahead."

Hundreds of whales die stranded on remote New Zealand beach
Pilot whales, which beached themselves, at Farewell Spit in the Golden Bay region at the northern tip
 of New Zealand's South Island on February 10, 2017 [Credit: AFP]
Department spokesman Herb Christophers said there were so many whale carcasses that it was difficult for the volunteers to get living animals into the water.

"The dead ones that are floating around out there are obstructing their course out to sea," he told AFP.

"I understand they're concerned about people's welfare... there's quite a safety issue there."

The volunteers at the beach were also advised to be wary of the thrashing tails and fins of the distressed whales, which can weigh up to two tonnes.

Pilot whales grow up to six metres (20 feet) long and are the most common species of whale in New Zealand waters.

They are renowned for tragically swimming back ashore after being refloated in an apparent attempt to rejoin their pod.

Perfect whale trap

Volunteers will again attempt to refloat any survivors on Saturday.

Hundreds of whales die stranded on remote New Zealand beach
Volunteers attend to some of the hundreds of stranded pilot whales still alive after one of New Zealand's largest
 recorded mass whale strandings on Feb 10, 2017 [Credit: Reuters]
In the past, whales that repeatedly re-strand have been euthanised after becoming steadily weaker with every attempt to return them to the sea.

Christophers said whale carcasses were sometimes tethered in the shallows so sea creatures could feed on them but such a solution might not work for Golden Bay, a popular tourist area.

He said they would probably "dig a bloody big hole" and bury the carcasses.

The department said it was New Zealand's third largest mass stranding.

The biggest occurred when 1,000 whales beached at the remote Chatham Islands in 1918, followed by 450 that washed ashore in Auckland in 1985.

Hundreds of whales die stranded on remote New Zealand beach
Volunteers attend to some of the hundreds of stranded pilot whales still alive after one of New Zealand's 
largest recorded mass whale strandings on Feb 10, 2017 [Credit: Reuters]
Farewell Spit, about 150 kilometres (95 miles) west of the tourist town of Nelson, has witnessed at least nine mass strandings of the species in the past decade, although the latest is by far the largest.

Lamason said the reason the whales beached themselves was unknown but he believed it was partly due to the local geography.

"If you designed something to catch whales then Golden Bay is probably the perfect design," he said.

"Out at Farewell Spit it's a big massive sweeping hook of sand coming about, the bay is very shallow and once the whales get in there... it's very difficult to work out which way is out."

Second whale stranding on notorious New Zealand beach

Another 200 whales were stranded on the same stretch of  New Zealand coastline late Saturday, frustrating rescuers who had battled through the day and even defied a shark threat to try and keep them at sea.

Hundreds of whales die stranded on remote New Zealand beach
Volunteers pour water on pilot whales during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit, 
on February 11, 2017 [Credit: AFP]
The 100 surviving whales from the previous day's stranding were refloated at high tide in the late morning but linked up with a so-called "super pod" of another 200 whales gathered off shore.

Rescuers waded into neck-deep water, defying a shark threat to form a human wall and guide the survivors out to sea while also prevent the other 200 from coming to shore.

"But in spite of best efforts by everyone to prevent further losses, the large pod of approximately 200 pilot whales that were free-swimming, have stranded," DOC spokesman Herb Christophers said.

"We may salvage some of the stranded whales. Not all stranded whales can successfully be refloated.

"Even when some whales are saved, they may still restrand as has happened in this instance and prolongs the effort and reduces the chances of success."

About 20 whales who restranded earlier in the day were euthanised "out of concern for their welfare," Christopher added.

The whales beached at low tide, three kilometres (1.8 miles) from where the first group had died Friday.

"We don't know why the super pod came in," said Daren Grover, the general manager of environmental group Project Jonah which is assisting with the rescue.

"They may have been picking up some calls from the whales here and come in to respond. It's very unusual, not something we have seen before."

Hundreds of whales die stranded on remote New Zealand beach
Volunteers pour water over the stranded Pilot whales during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit
on February 11, 2017 [Credit: AFP]
Whale beachings: some notable events

Argentina

The International Whaling Commission says animals can swim to their deaths on shore, or die at sea and wash up on the beach later.

Strandings can occur for natural reasons, like age and disease, or from man-made disruption, such as environmental degradation or collision with ships.

One of the largest known mass beachings in the last century was of false killer whales in October 1946, when an estimated 835 false killer whales were stranded near Mar del Plata in Argentina.

Chile

In December 2015 more than 300 whales were discovered washed up on a remote Patagonian inlet in southern Chile. Scientists at the time called the sight of the stranding "apocalyptic".

A surge in algae in the water, known as a "red tide", was believed to be the culprit. It bloomed across the ocean around Chile in the early months of 2016, choking to death an estimated 40,000 tons of salmon in the Los Lagos region—or some 12 percent of the country's annual production of the fish.

In July 2016 some 70 dead whales were also found on the southern Chile coast.

Madagascar

In May 2008 around a hundred whales swam onto the beaches of Madagascar and three quarters of them perished, in the first mass beaching blamed on high-frequency sonar mapping systems deployed in the hunt for oil.

According to a report released by the International Whaling Commission in 2013, the culprit was as a high-power 12 kilohertz multibeam echosounder system operated by an ExxonMobil vessel about 65 kilometres (40 miles) offshore. The company disagreed with the findings.

The use of anti-submarine sonars was also suspected of causing the mass-beaching of whales in 2002, when some 15 beaked whales perished in the Canaries after a NATO exercise.

Japan

In April 2015, around 150 melon-headed whales were discovered washed up on a stretch of beach in Japan.

The cetaceans, which usually live in deep water and are a member of the dolphin family, were thought to have either suffered from a parasitic infection that disrupted their ability to navigate, or had become unable to navigate in the sandy shoals. 

Author: Neil Sands | Source: AFP [February 11, 2017]
TANN

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