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On Monday, January 23rd, a pilot flying over New Zealand saw what is unfortunately starting to become a common sight - A large pod of stranded whales struggling to survive, at the base of Farewell Spit in Golden Bay, located in the country's South Island. Since then, over two hundred volunteers have been working day and night, to keep the mammals warm, and help them refloat. The saga finally ended on Wednesday morning, with mixed results.
The first lucky break came on Tuesday, when the volunteers managed to refloat 17 from the pod of about 99 that were stranded. However, the victory was bittersweet, since 42 of the gorgeous mammals perished at the same time.
And, while as of last night the last remaining batch of about 40 still remained in fairly good condition, the experts at the Department of Conservation were not very optimistic. That's because though they had tried to refloat the whales four times, the mammals had not seemed very motivated to leave - They would float for a few hundred meters and then, just lay there. Scientists believe that its probably because Pilot whales are a close knit community and do not move unless, there is consensus amongst the group.
Meanwhile, volunteers frantically tried to keep them cool and wet through the night in the hope that they would decide to refloat when the high tide returned. They finally had some success this morning. While they lost 7 more whales, 33 did decide to leave and so far, look as though they are motivated to get going. While relieved, experts are still a little worried that one or more may return and are planning to monitor the beach 24 hours a day, for the rest of this week.
Scientists are not sure what causes this mass beaching of whales and why this particular area is so susceptible. They suspect that it may have to do with Farewell Spit's shallow waters that seems to confuse the whales and diminish their ability to navigate.
Having said that, this year seems to be particularly bad - In November 2011, a pod of 60 whales became beached in the same area, 47 of which, never made it back to sea. Earlier this month 25 from a pod of 70 became stranded just 2 kilometers from where the most recent incident took place - Only 18 escaped alive!
The extremely social Pilot whale is a member of the dolphin family and second in size only, to the killer whale. They are as smart as bottlenose dolphins and just as easy, to train. However, they seem to be highly prone to being stranded, a trait that scientists believe may have something to do with their social structure. We sure hope researchers somehow find a solution to this, since we really cannot afford to lose so many of these gorgeous creatures.
Resources: BBC.co.uk, channel6online.com,nzherald.co.nz