December 20, 2005

Scores of stranded whales refloated off New Zealand

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Hundreds of volunteers refloated more than 100 pilot whales stranded on a beach at the top of New Zealand's South Island on Wednesday and conservation authorities prepared to herd the mammals out to sea to keep them from returning.

The volunteers, who included tourists, refloated the beached whales just before high tide at around 2 p.m. (0100 GMT), about 24 hours after they were stranded.

"Once we've got them refloated, there'll be some boats used to try to herd them out to sea and that could go on for some hours," Department of Conservation spokeswoman Trish Grant told Reuters from Puponga Beach, about 150 km (93 miles) northwest of the city of Nelson.

Before the whales were refloated, they were washed with water to keep them cool and prevent their skin from drying out.

Most of the estimated 115 long-finned pilot whales headed out to sea, but about 15 had died, said Grant.

Rescuers were considering using a helicopter to help prevent them from returning to the beach, she said.

The whales initially beached themselves over a wide area but moved together overnight as the sea came in.

"I think people feel a very strong connection with the whales and are quite touched by their plight," said Grant. "I think there's quite a buoyant mood because people were glad to be involved in trying to help rescue these whales."

New Zealand, which has 41 whale species in its waters, has a high rate of strandings because of its long coastline and sometimes shallow waters, said Anton van Helden, collections manager of marine mammals at the New Zealand museum Te Papa.

In January 2003, 159 pilot whales were stranded on New Zealand's southern Stewart Island. The largest stranding on record was of 1,000 pilot whales in 1918 on the Chatham Islands, 800 km (500 miles) east of the mainland.

Conservation ranger Simon Walls said it was not known how the latest pod had become stranded, but it had happened in the area before.

"The shallow shelving beach, the spit and the configuration of headlands seems to cause navigation problems for them. These conditions seem to trigger strandings," Walls told the Nelson Mail newspaper.