Rescuers race to save dozens of stranded pilot whales in New Zealand | New Zealand

A team of experts and volunteers are racing the tides to save a pod of pilot whales stranded at Farewell Spit at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island.

Dozens of the roughly 50 long-finned pilot whales have already died since they stranded on Monday, and the remaining animals stayed in the shallows on Tuesday morning despite efforts to move them out to sea.

The Department of Conservation responded to the stranding on Monday afternoon with a team of about 65 people, including volunteers from the marine mammal rescue charity Project Jonah.

Rescuers managed to refloat many of the whales with the high tide that evening, forming a human chain to guide them out to deeper water. But the pod remained in the shallows about 80 metres offshore overnight as the outgoing tide worked against them.

On Tuesday morning rescuers had relocated the pod at dawn to find a further 17 whales had died overnight, adding to the nine deaths on Monday.

Though volunteers stood with the whales for more than an hour in chest-deep water, they did not seem motivated to swim out to deeper water.

Karen Stockin, director of the Cetacean Ecology Research Group at Massey University who was at the scene, said at noon on Tuesday that 28 whales remained alive – roughly half the number that first stranded – but were still at risk.

“We’ve been in the water pretty much since the first light … Now we’re losing the tide really quickly, and the real risk is the ones that are in the shallows now.

“We’re needing to be prepared for the possibility that there will be a re-stranding of the 28 (alive), based on the tide going out.”

Farewell Spit is notorious for mass strandings of whales and dolphins. Photograph: Project Jonah/AFP/Getty Images

Farewell Spit – a 5km-long stretch of sand at the top of the South Island – is a frequent site of whale and dolphin strandings, especially early in the year, though scientists are not sure what draws the animals to the spot.

The last mass stranding there was in February 2017, when an estimated 600-700 whales were beached at Farewell Spit – leading to 250 deaths.

Last year nearly 100 pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins died in a mass stranding on the remote Chatham Islands, about 800km (497 miles) off New Zealand’s east coast.

Stockin said research was being carried out at the Farewell Spit site in the hope of understanding the whales’ behaviour and what factors might contribute to their survival in future stranding events.

“As strandings go for Golden Bay, 49 or so animals is small, which we’re very grateful for – but by the same token, some have now perished.”