Stranded whales refloated in New Zealand but concerns remain

Rescuers racing to save dozens of pilot whales that beached on a stretch of New Zealand coast at Farewell Spit on Feb 22, 2021.
Rescuers racing to save dozens of pilot whales that beached on a stretch of New Zealand coast at Farewell Spit on Feb 22, 2021.PHOTO: AFP/PROJECT JONAH

WELLINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - Rescuers successfully refloated 28 pilot whales stranded on a notorious stretch of New Zealand's coast on Tuesday (Feb 23), but the mammals remained close to shore and could beach themselves again, wildlife officials said.

The Department of Conservation said the long-finned pilot whales were part of a pod of around 50 found on Monday at Farewell Spit, about 90km north of the South Island tourist town of Nelson.

Around 40 were pushed out to sea on Monday evening but they swam back ashore by the next morning, with around 60 volunteers helping move the 28 survivors back into the water.

"The whales have been close to shore and it's uncertain whether they will swim off or possibly re-strand," a Department of Conservation spokesman said.

"(Department) rangers and volunteers remain on-site ready to respond if the whales start swimming for shore and become stranded again."

Rescue workers were in the water trying to encourage the whales to swim off. About 50 people including volunteers from Project Jonah, an environmental organisation that specialises in the protection of marine mammals, researchers, government officials and the general public were at the spot trying to help re-float the whales.

At least 15 of the original pod have died.

Farewell Spit is a 26km hook of sand that protrudes into the sea at Golden Bay.

It has been the scene of at least 10 pilot whale strandings in the past 15 years.

The most recent was in February 2017, when almost 700 of the mammals beached, resulting in 250 deaths.

Scientists are unclear about why the beach is so deadly. One theory is that the spit creates a shallow seabed in the bay that interferes with the whales' sonar navigation systems.