Volunteers in New Zealand are frantically working to save the lives of 174 pilot whales who are stuck at Farewell Spit, a notorious death trap due to its shallow waters. At least 24 whales have already died since becoming stranded a few days ago.

The exact cause of the stranding is not known, though New Zealand's Department of Conservation suspects it has something to do with the pilot whales' compromised ability to use echo-location in shallow, gently sloping waters. These whales prefer steep areas such as continental shelf edges. And indeed, Farewell Spit, which is located in Golden Bay near Nelson, is notorious for trapping whales who get hopelessly stuck in its extensive shallow waters.

The DoC also suspects that the pilot whales, which are among the largest of the oceanic dolphins, may have gotten stuck on account of their highly sociable behavior; when one whale gets stranded, its pod mates typically swim to its aid.

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Initially, volunteers estimated the number of stranded whales at 30. But the number climbed to 60, then 143, and finally 198. Two dozen whales have already died (with some outlets reporting that as many as 70 have already died), with many more deaths expected.

The DoC says it needs at least 500 volunteers to help the whales get back to deeper waters on Saturday. Some 100 volunteers have already rushed to the scene, working to keep the whales cool under the blistering sun.

The New Zealand Herald reports:

To have a good chance of survival, stranded whales needed overcast or rainy conditions, but Farewell Spit had experienced dry, sunny conditions today.

"It hasn't been a great day to be a stranded whale," Mr [Andrew] Lamason [of DofC] said. "This is a big stranding. It's a real challenge."

He said people had to brace themselves for the unpleasant possibility the pilot whales would have to be euthanised, but rescuers were a long way from giving up on the animals.

"We'll just keep on trying."

The high tide tomorrow evening just before dusk would be a good chance to refloat the stranded pod, he said.

Tragically, some whales have been refloated in the high tide, but were "swimming in a confused fashion," as described by Lamason.

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"What the risk is, is you've got some of those whales in that pod which are determined to restrand and they'll be dragging the ones that have been refloated back onto the beach," he is quoted as saying in The Guardian.

This stranding is the largest the region has seen in over a decade.

[ New Zealand Herald | The Guardian ]

Photos: AFP.