Saturday , January 22 2022

More than 140 Pilots Whales Are Dead After Mass Beaching in New Zealand


WELLINGTON, New Zealand – More than 140 pilot whales died after beaching themselves in southern New Zealand, with half being euthanized by conservation workers in a "deeply saddening" decision after their discovery came too late to rescue them, officials said Monday.

The beach, in an isolated part of Stewart Island, off the coast of South Island, was the largest in New Zealand since 250 pilot whales died last year in one of the worst such incidents in the country's history.

The beached whales on Stewart Island were discovered in two separate groups, or pods, just as several other whales deaths and strandings were reported around the country over the weekend.

The Department of Conservation said Monday that as many as 145 whales beached themselves at Mason Bay, on the island's west side, where they were discovered by a hiker on Saturday afternoon.

Ren Leppens, the department's operations manager for the island, said the hiker went for "two to three hours" to alert the conservation staff. Half of the whales were already dead by the time rangers reached the two pods, leaving the rest to be euthanized.

"It's deeply saddening," said Mr. Leppens, who added that the whales, which may have been stranded as early as Friday, had "started to cover in sand" by the time they were found. Poor weather meant that experts could not be flown into assessing the situation, so euthanizing them was the only option, he said.

Mr. Leppens said the beach was the site of three previous mass strandings. More than 300 whales beached themselves near Mason Bay in 1998.

The Department of Conservation says the events are believed to happen when whales make navigational mistakes while chasing prey, escaping predators or trying to protect sick members of the group, but more than one factor could contribute.

Last February, 250 whales were stoned after hundreds of beaches at Farewell Spit, one of the most common places for whales in New Zealand. They died after 500 rescuers frantically tried to refloat the animals.

Krista Hupman, a marine biologist for the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, said whale conservation groups kept a close eye on Farewell Spit and were ready to convene rescue teams in short notice when the animals appeared swimming in the direction of coastline.

"But without that initial sighting we're out of luck," she said, referring to the remoteness of the beach at Stewart Island, which is home to just 402 people.

At the opposite end of the country, rescuers at Ninety Mile Beach, near the northern tip of the North Island, delayed efforts to refrain eight stranded pygmy killer whales until Tuesday due to bad weather. Four whales were on the beach as of Monday. Two other whales beached themselves elsewhere in New Zealand, officials said.

The Department of Conservation said the deaths were "unlikely to be related," and Ms. Hupman, the whale biologist, said strands were common in New Zealand at this time of year.

While New Zealand is known to have an unusually high number of whale strandings, she said, scientists did not know why they were so often, the reasons behind them, or whether the animals were the best way to respond.

Mr. Leppens, the Department of Conservation operations manager, said that the remote location meant conservation staff would leave the whales on the beach to decompose and "let nature take its course."

But the exact circumstances of the stranding remained a mystery.

"The sooner technology can race forward and give us a better idea of ​​why this happens, the better," he said.

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