Some 477 pilot whales have died after washing up on two remote New Zealand beaches in recent days, officials say.
None of the stranded whales could be refloated and all died naturally or were euthanized in a “heartbreaking” loss, said Daren Grover, general manager of Project Jonah, a nonprofit group that helps rescue whales.
The whales stranded on the Chatham Islands, which are home to about 600 people and are about 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of New Zealand’s main islands.
The Department of Conservation said 232 whales were stranded on Tupuangi Beach on Friday and another 245 in Waihere Bay on Monday.
The deaths come two weeks after some 200 pilot whales died in Australia after being stranded on a remote Tasmanian beach.
“These events are difficult and challenging situations,” the Department of Conservation wrote in a Facebook post. “Although these are natural occurrences, 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 couldn’t mobilize volunteers to try to refloat the whales as they have in previous stranding events.
“We do not actively refloat whales in the Chatham Islands due to the risk of shark attack to humans and the whales themselves, so euthanasia was the kinder choice,” said Dave Lundquist, marine technical adviser for the conservation department.
Mass pilot whale strandings are quite common in New Zealand, especially during the summer months. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes whales to beach themselves, though it appears that their location systems can be confused with 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 quickly find themselves moving from very deep water to shallow water.
“They trust their echolocation, and yet it doesn’t tell them they’re running out of water,” Grover said. “They get closer and closer to shore and become disoriented. The tide can fall under them and before they know it, they’re stranded on the beach.” Due to the remote location of the beaches, 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 within the bodies of all the whales will be returned to nature fairly quickly,” he said.