Photo Credit: Project Jonah via Facebook

New Zealand is no stranger to beached whales. Every year, rescuers help refloat many disoriented mammals that get stuck in the coastal waters or sand during low tide. However, last week’s simultaneous stranding of two pods, totaling over 650 pilot whales, in the shallow muddy waters of Golden Bay at the northwest tip of South Island is almost unprecedented. Local marine experts say it is the largest known whale stranding since 1985, when 450 of the mammals were found beached in Auckland, and the third largest on record.

The chain of events began on February 9, when locals woke up to the news that over 400 whales were beached at the base of Farewell Spit, a narrow sand spit at the northern end of Golden Bay. Unfortunately, by the time rescuers arrived, almost 300 whales had perished. More than 500 volunteers worked tirelessly to keep the remaining mammals cool until high-tide. At 3:30 PM local time, the Department of Conservation (DOC) announced that the whales had been successfully nudged back into the ocean.

Photo Credit: Project Jonah via Facebook

But before the weary volunteers could recover, came more distressing news. Late on Friday, February 10, a new group of almost 200 pilot whales was discovered stranded along the same 5-kilometer stretch of coastline. Andrew Lamason, the Operations Manager at the DOC, says they are confident it was a new pod because they had tagged all the refloated whales from the first group and none of the whales in the new group had tags.

Unfortunately, nothing could be done to help the stranded whales at night. The mammals get agitated in the dark and can hurt or even kill a human with a mere flick of their fin or tail. The whales also carry diseases so volunteers need to avoid contact with their blowhole exhalent or body fluids, which is hard to do when visibility is poor.

Photo Credit: Project Jonah via Facebook

Early Saturday, hundreds of locals returned to the beach, bracing for the worst. To their surprise and delight, all but 17 of the stranded whales were gone! DOC spokesman Herb Christophers says they were probably able to “self-rescue” when the tide came in during the night. The rescuers took care of the remaining 17 mammals until the tide returned and allowed them to join the pod waiting about a mile offshore. As of 1:15 PM local time, the whales appeared to be safe in the deeper waters. However, experts continue to keep a watchful eye to ensure they do not return.

Meanwhile, DOC officials are trying to deal with the over 300 whale carcasses that lie scattered on the beach. To release the gas created by the bacteria in the whales’ stomachs, marine mammal experts clad in protective gear have begun poking holes in the bodies. This will prevent the whales from exploding or drifting out to sea as they decompose. The officials are also considering building a fence around the area so that the whales don’t float into bays and attract sharks along the coastal areas.

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Thanks to its unique shape and shallow waters that affects the echolocation of mammals making their way around, whale strandings are not unusual near Farewell Spit. However, experts are confounded at the unusually large number in the most recent incidents. Christophers speculates that a lost whale’s distress call may have caused the entire pod to rush to the rescue. However, DOC ranger Mike Ogle has a different theory. After noticing some shark bites on one of the whales, he believes they may have been trying to escape dangerous prey. The DOC hopes to find some answers by analyzing biopsy samples taken from the dead whales.

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