December 21, 2005

Scores of Stranded Whales Rescued Off New Zealand

WELLINGTON -- More than 100 pilot whales stranded on a beach at the top of New Zealand's South Island were refloated by volunteers on Wednesday and conservation officials in boats herded the mammals out to sea.

Hundreds of volunteers, including tourists, refloated the beached whales just before high tide at around 2 p.m. (2000 EST), about 24 hours after they were stranded.

A handful of the whales tried to swim back and ground themselves again about three hours later, but rescuers formed a human chain to force them back into open water.

"This was certainly a lot easier than this morning's (rescue) because they hadn't completely grounded, although some of them had to be lifted across the mud," rescuer Craig Potton told Radio New Zealand.

"You grab it by the nose, just like elephants in Nepal, you manhandle them and push them. You just push like hell to make it go out, in the final analysis -- you don't muck around," he said.

In previous strandings, whales have broken away from a rescued group and led the others back to the beach.

About 15 of the estimated 115 long-finned pilot whales died on Puponga Beach, about 93 miles northwest of the city of Nelson, before volunteers were able to refloat them.

The whales initially beached themselves over a wide area on Tuesday but grouped together overnight as the sea came in. They were washed with water to keep them cool and prevent their skin from drying out before they were refloated.

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, 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.