Hundreds of Pilot Whales Stranded on New Zealand’s Farewell Spit

Up to 300 have died and volunteers are scrambling to get the remaining creatures back in the water

pilot whales
New Zealand volunteers formed a human chain in the water at a remote beach on Friday as they tried to save about 100 whales after more than 400 of the creatures beached themselves in one of the worst whale strandings in the nation's history. Associated Press

It’s a tragic scene: hundreds of pilot whales strewn on the shores and in the shallows of Farewell Spit in New Zealand. Of the 416 counted, almost 300 were thought to have already died when staff from the Department of Conservation arrived on scene Friday morning. Volunteers quickly responded to calls to assist the 100 remaining whales, reports Eleanor Ainge Roy for The Guardian.

“It’s one of the saddest things I have seen,” volunteer rescuer Peter Wiles told Fairfax New Zealand, reports Roy, “that many sentient creatures just wasted on the beach.”

On Thursday night, DOC staff spotted the pilot whales on the shores of Farewell Spit—a narrow strip of sand extending from the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island, according to a DOC press release. No work was completed overnight due to safety concerns over working so close to the creatures in the dark.

Up to 500 local volunteers left work and school to help as many whales as they could. The rescuers assisted more than 100 of the creatures by trying to refloat them during high tide. Fifty successfully made it out to sea, but just five hours later 80 to 90 were re-stranded, reports Ben Westcott for CNN.

This is the third largest mass stranding since record-keeping began in the 1800s. The largest took place in 1918 when 1,000 whales became stranded on Chatham Islands. It’s unusual to see such a large number of pilot whales traveling together, DOC Community Ranger Kath Inwood tells Westcott.

“We have 180 once before but I think a lot of (answers as to why) are unknown really,” Inwood, tells Westscott. “There’s a lot of different theories.”

Pilot whales are members of the dolphin family. They commonly live with families in pods of approximately 20 to 100 members, but the groups can grow into much larger numbers, according to New Zealand’s DOC. Marine mammal strandings are common in New Zealand, with more than 5,000 reported since 1840 for both whales and dolphins. The country has the highest rates of whale strandings in the world, reports Roy, with long-finned pilot whales the most frequently found, according to the DOC website.  

Marine animals can get stranded ashore for many different reasons, but investigating the cause of mass strandings can sometimes be a bit of mystery, Erin Blakemore reported for in January when 95 false killer whales were found trapped in roots and shallow silty water of Florida’s Everglades. Because many species of whales and dolphins, including pilot whales, travel in large family groups, the number of casualties can be great if all are driven to shallow waters. “The pods can find their way ashore because of human activity like underwater noise, changes in water temperature, tempting prey near the coast, disease or even mass confusion when the animals get disoriented by geographic features while swimming,” Blakemore writes.

At last report, Farewell Spit was still covered with the hundreds of dead pilot whales. Plans for removing and discarding the bodies were put on hold while the rescue effort continued.