Fighting today to save the whales, PETER FROST reports on the overnight news from New Zealand where yesterday more than 400 pilot whales came ashore in a mysterious mass stranding.
THIS morning local people, vets, conservation volunteers and whale enthusiasts are fighting to save the lives of at least a hundred pilot whales stranded on the ironically named Farewell Spit at the most northern point of New Zealand’s South Island.
More than 400 whales beached themselves here yesterday and three quarters have already died on the beach in what authorities are describing as one of the worst whale beachings they have ever seen. The area seems to confuse whales and has been the site of many previous mass strandings.
New Zealand Department of Conservation (DoC) community ranger Kath Inwood told us that about 300 volunteers had joined conservation workers on the beach today. She said they had refloated the whales at high tide and had formed a human chain to try to prevent them from swimming back ashore.
She said that yesterday volunteers had tried to keep the surviving whales damp and cool by placing blankets over them and dousing them with buckets of water as they waited for the tide to rise. The high tide allowed volunteers one last chance to help the whales before darkness put an end to yesterday’s rescue efforts.
Dawn today saw the volunteers back in action. Ms Inwood said whale strandings occur most years at Farewell Spit, but the scale of this stranding had come as a shock.
Andrew Lamason, the DoC’s regional manager, said it was one of the largest mass beachings recorded in New Zealand.
He said the surviving whales are “being kept cool, calm and comfortable” by volunteers on the beach.
Some of the refloated whales tried to swim back to shore, and the human chain was trying to herd them out to deeper waters, said volunteer Ana Wiles. “We managed to float quite a few whales off and there were an awful lot of dead ones in the shallows so it was really, really sad.”
“One of the nicest things was we managed to float off a couple [of whales] and they had babies and the babies were following,” Ms Wiles added.
New Zealand marine mammal charity Project Jonah which is leading efforts to save the whales told us a total of 416 whales had stranded and most were dead when they were discovered.
Scientists do not know what exactly causes whales to beach themselves.
But it sometimes happens because the whales are old and sick, injured, or make navigational errors particularly along gentle sloping beaches.
Sometimes when one whale is beached, it will send out a distress signal attracting other members of its pod, who then also get stranded by a receding tide.
One theory of the cause of the latest beaching is that the whales’ echo-location systems have been disrupted by joint US and New Zealand naval exercises involving experimental seismic equipment. Authorities have been quick to deny any connection with the mass stranding.
Professor Liz Slooton, of the University of Otago’s department of zoology, told the New Zealand Herald there was a wide range of causes for whale strandings. She said: “Whales may beach themselves because they were sick, dying, giving birth or disoriented.
“While natural causes such as earthquakes and storms could be a factor, human causes, including noise, may lead to a whale beaching itself.”
Slooton added that it was remotely possible but unlikely seismic testing had caused the mass stranding.
Farewell Spit has been described as a whale trap. It has a long protruding coastline and gently sloping beaches that seem to make it difficult for whales to navigate away from once they get close.
New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale strandings in the world, and this weekend’s event is the nation’s third-biggest ever recorded. The largest was in 1918, when over a thousand pilot whales came ashore on the Chatham Islands.
Many of these incidents happen at Farewell Spit. Experts say its shallow waters seems to confuse whales and hinder their ability to navigate.
In February 2015 about 200 whales beached themselves here, of which at least half died.
The Pilot Whale
PILOT whales fall into two species, the long-finned and the short-finned. The two are not readily distinguishable at sea.
Analysis of the skulls at autopsy is the best way to accurately distinguish between the species.
Size and weight depend on the species. Long-finned pilot whales are generally larger than short-finned pilot whales.
Adults can reach a body length of approximately 21 feet, with males being three feet longer than females.
Their body mass reaches up to 1,300kg in females and up to 2,300kg in males.
Female pilot whales are one of the few mammals besides humans who have a menopause.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star Saturday 11 February 2017.