Volunteers and whale watchers finally caught a break on Sunday when more than 200 stranded whales were able to free themselves and swim away. Groups working on refloating the rest of the whales managed to save 17 others at high tide.
There were over 650 pilot whales caught in the shallows along Farewell Spit at the tip of the South Island in New Zealand in two mass strandings this week. A total of 350 whales have died, including 20 that had to be euthanized. Over 100 had already been refloated by volunteers tirelessly saving them, while the other whales managed to swim away on their own, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Hundreds of workers ranging from tourists to farmers spent days at the beach, keeping the stranded whales wet and cool with buckets of water and cloths. Human chains were formed to keep the whales from returning to the shallows.
Herb Christophers, a spokesperson for the Department of Conservation, observed,
People seem to have an emotional attachment to marine mammals. They’ve been singing songs to them, giving them specific names, treating them as kindred spirits.
Christophers adds that everyone hopes there will be no more strandings, though he says it’s possible some of the whales will return to the beach again.
The first group of beached whales was found early Friday, numbering around 400. Many of them were already dead. Volunteers were able to refloat the rest, only for a second mass stranding to occur hours later.
Andrew Lamason from the Department of Conservation said they were sure it was a different pod as all the refloated whales had been tagged. The problem officials now face is getting rid of hundreds of carcasses.
Farewell Spit has long been a site of mass whale strandings, and is sometimes described as a whale trap. Its long coastlines and gently sloping shores make it difficult for whales to navigate away once they get too close.
New Zealand has one of the world’s highest incidences in whale beachings, Friday’s being the third-largest in the country’s history.