Over the past week, a string of tragedies have unfolded on the beaches of New Zealand. In three separate and befuddling incidents, dozens of whales stranded themselves on the shore, often leaving conservation workers with little choice but to euthanize the animals that had not already perished. To date, more than 200 whales have died.
As many as 145 pilot whales were discovered this past Saturday evening on a remote stretch of Stewart Island, off the coast of South Island, according to Charlotte Graham-McLay of the New York Times. They appeared to belong to two distinct pods, and by the time rangers could reach the beached whales, half of them had died. The rest were in poor condition, and difficult to access because of the remote location in which they had surfaced.
“[The most humane thing to do was to euthanize,” said Ren Leppens, an operations manager with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. “However, it’s always a heart-breaking decision to make.”
More heartbreak soon followed. On November 25, ten pygmy killer whales were found on Ninety Mile Beach, at the opposite end of the country. Some 200 conservation workers and volunteers managed to get eight of the whales back into the water, only for seven of those whales to strand themselves once again, the Associated Press reports. After the second stranding, the whales were euthanized.
In most recent incident, between 80 and 90 pilot whales swam onto a rocky shore in the sparsely populated Chatham Islands, which sit about 500 miles east of South Island. Around 30 to 40 of those whales were able to re-float themselves, however all but one of the others had died. Because it was not faring well, officials decided to euthanize the lone surviving whale.
The forces driving the recent strandings remain unclear. It is not unusual for whales to beach themselves during spring and summer in New Zealand, though according to the BBC, mass strandings like the ones that happened this week are rare. Scientists don’t really know why the tragic events occur, but a number of factors could be at play.
It is possible that whales sometimes navigate incorrectly while in unfamiliar terrain, says Dave Lundquist, the Department of Conservation’s technical advisor for marine species and threats. The animals might also rush ashore while trying to escape predators. Noise caused by man-made activities, like surveying for petroleum and gas, could be pushing whales towards beaches.
“The reality is that in many cases, it’s probably a combination of those factors,” he explains.
At this point in time, it seems that the three mass strandings that occurred in quick succession are simply an unfortunate coincidence. According to Lundquist, “there’s no evidence at this stage to suggest they’re directly linked.”