477 whales die in ‘heartbreaking’ stranding in New Zealand

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — About 477 pilot whales have died after stranding on two remote New Zealand beaches in recent days, officials said.

None of the stranded whales were able to refloat, and all either died naturally or were euthanized in a “heartbreaking” loss, said Daren Grover, executive director of Project Jonah, a nonprofit group that helps rescue whales.

The whales beached in the Chatham Islands, home to about 600 people and located about 800 kilometers (500 miles) east of New Zealand’s main islands.

The Department of Conservation said 232 whales were stranded on Friday at Tupuangi Beach and another 245 at Waihere Bay on Monday.

The deaths come two weeks after about 200 pilot whales died in Australia after being stranded on a remote beach in Tasmania.

“These events are difficult, challenging situations,” the Department of Conservation wrote in a Facebook post. “Although they are natural phenomena, they are still sad and difficult for those who help.”

Grover said the remote location and the presence of sharks in the surrounding waters meant they could not mobilize volunteers to try to refloat the whales as they had in previous strandings..

“We don’t actively float whales in the Chatham Islands because of the risk of shark attacks on humans and the whales themselves, so euthanasia was the kindest option,” said Dave Lundquist, technical marine advisor for the conservation department.

Mass stranding of pilot whales is quite common in New Zealand, especially in the summer months. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes the whales to strand, although it appears that their tracking systems may be confused by the gently sloping sandy beaches.

Grover said there is plenty of food for the whales around the Chatham Islands, and as they swim closer to land, they would quickly find themselves going from very deep to shallow water.

“They rely on their sonar and yet it doesn’t tell them they’re running out of water,” Grover said. “They’re getting closer and closer to shore and they’re getting disoriented. The tide can then fall out from under them and before they know it, they are stranded on the beach.”

Because of the beaches’ remote location, the whale carcasses will not be buried or towed out to sea, as is often the case, but left to decompose, Grover said.

“Nature is a great recycler and all the energy stored in the bodies of all the whales will be returned to nature quite quickly,” he said.

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