At least 145 pilot whales are dead following a mass stranding at a remote beach in southern New Zealand. The two pods of pilot whales beached themselves over the weekend, their carcasses now littering the picturesque beach.
The two pods stranded themselves about 2 kilometers apart on Stewart Island late Saturday, according to the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC). The grim scene was discovered by a hiker, who trekked to a nearby field base to report the stranding.
By the time conservationists arrived on the scene, 75 whales — approximately half the total number — were already dead. Due to the compromised health of those still alive, and the remote location of the beach, the conservationists decided to shoot the remaining whales as a final act of mercy.
“Sadly, the likelihood of being able to successfully re-float the remaining whales was extremely low. The remote location, lack of nearby personnel, and the whales’ deteriorating condition meant the most humane thing to do was to euthanize,” said DOC Rakiura Operations Manager Ren Leppens in a statement. “However, it’s always a heartbreaking decision to make.”
The incident happened at the southern end of Mason Bay on Stewart Island, also known as Rakiura. Mason’s Bay is located 35 kilometers from the island’s main township of Oban. The island is home to about 375 people, which is located off the southern shore of New Zealand’s large southern island.
The DOC has contacted the local indigenous population to discuss next steps, but the carcasses may be left on the beach for nature take its course, the AP reports. The DOC suspects that the whales were beached for an entire day prior to being detected, as some whales were half-buried in sand, and with so many already dead.
“You feel for the animals, it’s just a really sad event,” added Leppens. “It’s the kind of thing you don’t want to see. You wish you could understand the reasoning why the whales strand better, so you could intervene.”
New Zealand is notorious for whale strandings. On February 10, 2017, for example, 416 pilot whales beached themselves at Farewell Spit in Golden Bay — the worst mass stranding the country had seen in decades. Normally, anywhere from between 85 to 300 whales and dolphins strand themselves on a New Zealand beach each year.
Pilot whales, whose pod members are connected by intense social bonds, are particularly vulnerable to mass strandings. It’s possible these whales get stuck when coming to the aid of an old, sick, or injured pod member. The strandings might also have something to do with the pilot whale’s navigation system; their echolocation becomes compromised in shallow, gently sloping waters.
By sheer coincidence, New Zealand conservationists are currently having to deal with an unrelated stranding to the north. As the DOC reports, 10 pygmy whales are stuck on 145km Beach, two of which have been refloated. Further attempts to save these whales will be made tomorrow.