WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - One hundred and forty-five pilot whales died over the weekend, after they became stranded on a remote New Zealand beach.
The pilot whales were discovered by hikers in two pods about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) apart late Saturday on Stewart Island. About 75 were already dead and conservation workers decided to euthanize the others due to their poor condition and remote location.
Only about 375 people live on Stewart Island, which is also called Rakiura. The whales were found at Mason's Bay about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the main township of Oban.
"You feel for the animals, it's just a really sad event," said Ren Leppens, the Rakiura operations manager for the Department of Conservation. "It's the kind of thing you don't want to see. You wish you could understand the reasoning why the whales strand better, so you could intervene."
Leppens said the whales were half buried in sand and not in good health, indicating they had been there for perhaps a day before they were found. He said staff shot the whales and the carcasses would be left where they were for nature to take its course.
Travel blogger and Virginia native Liz Carlson wrote that she was on a five-day hike on a remote part of Stewart Island when she and partner Julian Ripoll found the pilot whales Saturday evening. She said they rushed into the water.
"Desperately we grabbed their tails and pushed and yelled, before we got hammered by them thrashing around," she wrote on Instagram. "It was useless — they were so big and heavy and the realization we could do nothing to save them was the worst feeling I've ever experienced."
Saturday night was the worst night of my entire life. 50kms into a 5 day tramp on the remote west coast of Stewart Island, we were wandering back to our camp at at sunset and came across hundreds of pilot whales becoming beached in the low surf. When we realized the horror of what we were seeing, we dropped everything and ran straight into the water. Desperately we grabbed their tails and pushed and yelled, before we got hammered by them thrashing around. It was useless - they were so big and heavy and the realization we could do nothing to save them was the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced. We were in a place with no people, no service, no help. @ju_riviera was a champion and took off running at 8:30pm in his wet sandy clothes and boots almost 15 kilometers back to a base hut up the bay where we knew there were DOC rangers working who would have a radio. He made it in 1.5 hours to raise the alarm, and I stayed with the whales til dark, sitting with them, dragging the smallest baby back in the water every few minutes before it would rebeach itself, and throwing water over the drier whales until my hands were numb from the water and wind. I’ll never forget their cries, the way they watched me as I sat with them in the water, how they desperately tried to swim but their weight only dug them deeper into the sands. My heart completely broke. When the realization there was no hope, it was almost dark, high tide was in the middle of the night and knowing this was one of the most remote places in New Zealand, I knew they would inevitable die. I sank to my knees in the sand screaming in frustration and crying, with the sound of dozens of dying whales behind me, utterly alone. It would take close to 1000 people to save them, more than double the whole population of Rakiura. The only positive bit was thanks to us alerting everyone, they were able to euthanize them shortly afterwards, and my heart hurts for the man who had that horrific job, and would have done anything to save them too. Otherwise it would have likely been days before anyone even knew the whales were there and a very long painful slow death for them all. I’ll never be the same after this.
She said her friend ran 15 kilometers (9 miles) to a hut to tell rangers and she stayed with the whales, dragging the smallest baby back into the water every few minutes before it would beach itself again.
"I knew they would inevitably die," she wrote. "I sank to my knees in the sand screaming in frustration and crying, with the sound of dozens of dying whales behind me, utterly alone."
Whale strandings are relatively common in New Zealand during the Southern Hemisphere spring and summer. Scientists believe strandings can be caused by a number of factors, such as the whales trying to escape predators, falling ill, or navigating incorrectly.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, 10 pygmy killer whales were found stranded at Ninety Mile Beach on the North Island of New Zealand. Two whales later died there, however conservation workers and volunteers in New Zealand managed to refloat six surviving stranded whales on Tuesday and were hoping the animals would soon swim away into deeper water.
On Monday evening, crews transported the remaining animals on hay-lined trailers to Rarawa Beach on the opposite coast of the peninsula, where the sea conditions were calmer. The trip took about an hour, said Department of Conservation ranger Jamie Werner.
Werner said the whales were then placed in a tidal stream to relieve the pressure on their bodies. But he said the whales became too buoyant and were moved onto the sand, where volunteers kept a vigil through the night, regularly cooling the animals with water.
Werner said about 200 people showed up to help, and groups of a dozen per whale lifted the animals into the sea Tuesday morning and refloated them on the high tide. He said that two of the weaker whales beached themselves again.