More Than 400 Whales Strand on New Zealand Beach, Most Die

February 9, 2017 Updated: February 9, 2017
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand—More than 400 whales have stranded on a New Zealand beach and about three-quarters of them have died in one of the worst recorded whale strandings in the nation’s history.

The pilot whales were found Friday at remote Farewell Spit at the tip of the South Island. It’s an area that seems to confuse whales and has been the site of previous mass strandings.

Conservation workers and volunteers were hoping to refloat at least some of the surviving whales at high tide Friday. If that fails, they were planning a second attempt Saturday.

Volunteer rescue group Project Jonah said a total of 416 whales had stranded and 75 percent were dead when they were discovered. The Department of Conservation put the number of dead whales at about 250 to 300.

Department spokesman Andrew Lamason told Radio New Zealand they were putting sheets and buckets of water on the surviving whales and trying to keep them calm.

He said that with so many whales already dead, it was likely that many of the survivors would not be in good shape.

Authorities were asking for fit and competent volunteers to travel to the beach and help with the rescue efforts.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale strandings in the world, and Friday’s event is the nation’s third largest recorded stranding.

The largest was in 1918, when about 1,000 pilot whales came ashore on the Chatham Islands. In 1985 about 450 whales stranded in Auckland.

There are different theories as to why whales strand themselves, from them chasing prey too far inshore to them trying to protect a sick member of the group.

Farewell Spit is sometimes described as a whale trap. It has a long protruding coastline and gently sloping beaches which appears to make it difficult for whales to navigate away from with their sonar systems once they get close.