There’s a big task ahead for New Zealand authorities after a recent major mass animal stranding on its shore.

Now the mission is to move the carcasses of about 300 whales that died in the mass stranding on Farewell Spit in Golden Bay, an event that saw more than 400 pilot whales washed up on a narrow stretch of land. The incident last Friday, Feb. 10 was marked as the third largest mass stranding seen in the country.

The carcasses are poised to be moved to an area not open to the public, where the bodies will be buried in the sand dunes further up the area on South Island.

Carcass Disposal

“It’s a big job,” said Trish Grant of the Department of Conservation, adding it would take a couple of days to perform the job since it can only be done during low tide.

On Monday, Feb. 13, workers started piercing the carcasses to release gas that has built up during decomposition. Wearing protective gear, they spent the morning piercing holes in the carcasses using knives and long needles to prevent explosion of such gases.

From there, diggers will be tasked to move the hundreds of heavy bodies to a location in the sand dunes, particularly in a portion of the local nature reserve typically not accessible to the public. The agency earlier considered leaving the bodies fenced where they were, but changed the decision out of safety concerns regarding the rotting carcasses.

Mass Stranding Concerns

Days after this large stranding event, authorities confirmed that another 240 pilot whales were stranded overnight at Golden Bay. The whales, however, were able to self-rescue: The tide came in and they successfully floated off and swam out to sea, Reuters reported, quoting DOC spokesperson Herb Christophers.

It is not exactly known why these mass strandings occur, but beached whales are not uncommon in the area. Golden Bay’s shallow muddy waters, for one, confuse the sonar of the marine mammals, leaving them prone to stranding with an ebb tide.

Other theories remain: the whales may have been driven to land by sharks, as bite marks were seen on one of the casualties. It could also be the shape of the coastline as well as the shallow tidal waters.

New Zealand has among the highest stranding rates worldwide, where around 300 whales and dolphins end up on its beaches each year. Farewell Spit is usually host to these incidents, where one of the biggest occurrences, last February 2015, left half of 200 beached whales dead.

Pilot whales are not classified as endangered, but their population is yet to be determined in the waters of New Zealand. University experts performed necropsies to find out what led them to troop to the shores.

There are other major stranding events elsewhere in the world. In southern Chile back in December 2015, an episode of red tide pushed more than 300 whales on the shore of a remote area. Madagascar beaches saw some 100 whales stranded in 2008, with three-quarters of them perishing. In 2002, anti-submarine sonars were suspected to be behind a mass whale beaching that killed some 25 beaked whales.

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