Rescuers get beached whales back into sea

World | AGENCIES 23 Feb 2021

Volunteers in New Zealand successfully refloated 40 stranded whales last night but remained concerned they might beach themselves again.

A pod of 49 long-finned pilot whales earlier stranded themselves on Farewell Spit, a stretch of a remote New Zealand coast notorious for mass strandings. Nine of the whales died.

Louisa Hawkes, a spokesperson for whale rescue group Project Jonah, said volunteers helped keep the whales cool and comfortable throughout the day by drenching them with buckets of water, keeping them upright and making sure they didn't put too much pressure on their fins.

The evening high tide allowed them to refloat the whales, she said. The whales were spread out along the beach and one of their first tasks was to herd them together again in a pod. About 200 people, most of them volunteers, helped form a barrier as they moved the whales out to sea. Once in deeper water, boats zipped along in a line to prevent the whales from returning.

Despite their efforts, Hawkes said the whales hadn't swum away into the ocean and they feared they might beach themselves again.

Farewell Spit is a 26-kilometer hook of sand that juts into Golden Bay.

It has seen at least 10 pilot whale strandings in the past 15 years, the most recent in February 2017, when almost 700 beached, resulting in 250 deaths.

Scientists are unclear as to why the beach is so deadly, although one theory is that the spit creates a shallow seabed in the bay that interferes with the whales' sonar navigation systems.

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