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More Than 400 Beached Whales In New Zealand: What Caused The Mass Stranding?

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New Zealand is accustomed to mass strandings on its shores, but today finds one of the worst to ever happen. More than 400 pilot whales washed up on a  narrow stretch of land, with at least 250 of them already dead.

The whales beached Friday, Feb. 10 on Farewell Spit in Golden Bay, located on the tip of the South Island, according to a statement by the Department of Conservation. By mid-morning, rescuers have started refloating nearly 100 whales, of which around 50 returned to sea.

Third Largest Mass Stranding In NZ

Daren Grover, general manager of Project Jonah, said many of the 50 refloated whales were reluctant to head back into the water and continued to mill around the low tide portion, likely because of the hesitation to leave their social group. In a 1NEWS report, Grover raised concerns that they could re-strand themselves overnight.

As of 3:40 pm in the country, around 276 whales had already perished. There has also been footage of whales making distress signals, with volunteers trying to keep them wet and comfortable.

The mass stranding is deemed the third largest in New Zealand since records dating from the late 1800s. More than 500 volunteers flocked to the scene to assist in rescue operations.

"This is quite emotional - it's encouraging to see the number of people who have come out to help ... We're going to give these whales the best chance we can,” said Louisa Hawkes of Project Jonah, also expressing thanks to residents and medics who arrived at the site to help.

The work will continue overnight, with a focus on volunteers’ safety given their proximity to large, stressed creatures.

Late Thursday night, the whales were already spotted by a department staffer. Previous strandings made up of mostly single or pairs of whales pale in comparison to the current situation, shared the staffer in a CNN report.

Potential Culprit, Other Mass Stranding Events

Experts from Massey University are performing necropsies on some of the dead pilot whales to find out what was behind the stranding, including factors like disease or trauma. Since the animals are insulated with plenty of blubber, they will rapidly decompose, making it critical to perform tests right away.

Community ranger Kath Inwood said it is rather rare for that many whales to travel at once.

“[W]e have 180 once before but I think a lot of [answers as to why] are unknown really,” Inwood told CNN.

The International Whaling Commission noted that animals can swim to death on shore, or perhaps die at sea and later wash up on the beach. Strandings can happen because of disease, aging, man-made or environmental disruption, or even collision with ships.

In December 2015, more than 300 whales were found on a remote area in southern Chile, with a red tide, a surge in algae content in the water, believed to be the reason. The algal bloom raged across the ocean around the country in early 2016, killing about 40,000 tons of salmon in Los Lagos.

In 2008, some 100 whales swam onto Madagascar beaches, three-fourths of them dying. It was the first known mass bleaching linked to high-frequency sonar mapping systems implemented for an oil expedition.

In 2002, anti-submarine sonars were also suspected as the cause of another mass whale beaching, where some 15 beaked whales died in the Canaries following a NATO exercise.

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