Update: 350 whales dead after 650 stranded in Farewell Spit, New Zealand

Volunteers look after a pod of stranded pilot whales as they prepare to refloat them after one of the country’s largest recorded mass whale strandings.
Volunteers look after a pod of stranded pilot whales as they prepare to refloat them after one of the country’s largest recorded mass whale strandings. Photograph: Anthony Phelps/Reuters
Rescuers working to save hundreds of beached whales in New Zealand finally had some good news when more than 200 swam back out to sea on Sunday.
More than 650 pilot whales had beached themselves along Farewell Spit at top of South Island in two separate mass strandings. About 350 whales died, including 20 that were euthanised. Another 100 were refloated by volunteers and, on Sunday, more than 200 were able to swim away unassisted, said conservation workers.
Hundreds of volunteers from farmers to tourists have spent days at the beach dousing the whales with buckets of water to keep them cool and trying to refloat them.
Department of Conservation spokesman Herb Christophers said on Sunday that everyone was hoping the strandings were finally over although it was possible some would return to the beach.
The first group of more than 400 beached whales was found early on Friday, with many of them already dead.
“You could hear the sounds of splashing, of blowholes being cleared, of sighing,” said Cheree Morrison, a magazine writer and editor who first stumbled upon the whales. “The young ones were the worst. Crying is the only way to describe it.”
Volunteers managed to refloat the survivors on Saturday, only to hear of a second mass stranding hours later.
Department of Conservation spokesman Andrew Lamason said they were sure they were dealing with a separate pod because they had tagged all the refloated whales from the first group and none of the new group had tags.
Volunteers formed human chains in the water to try to keep the whales away. The helpers were warned that one of the whales had been found with marks that looked like a shark bite.
Officials will soon need to turn to the task of disposing of hundreds of carcasses, possibly by tethering them in shallow waters to decompose.
Farewell Spit, a sliver of sand that arches like a hook into the Tasman Sea, has been the site of previous mass strandings. Sometimes described as a whale trap, the spit’s long coastline and gently sloping beaches seem to make it difficult for whales to navigate away from once they get close.
There are different theories as to why whales strand themselves, from chasing prey too far inshore to trying to protect a sick member of the group or escaping a predator.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale strandings in the world and Friday’s event was the nation’s third-biggest in recorded history. The largest was in 1918 when about 1,000 pilot whales came ashore on the Chatham Islands. In 1985 about 450 whales stranded at Auckland.
Pilot whales grow to about 7.5m (25ft) and are common around New Zealand’s waters.
Courtesy of theguardian.com

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