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Nearly 500 dead whales lie along New Zealand beach after ‘heart-breaking’ mass stranding 

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Death of the gentle giants: Nearly 500 dead whales lie along New Zealand beach after ‘heart-breaking’ mass stranding

  • All 477 whales died naturally or were euthanised after they ran aground in the remote Chatham Islands
  • The remote location and presence of sharks meant volunteers could not be mobilised to save the whales
  • Mass strandings occur frequently in New Zealand where wales get confused by gently sloping sandy beaches 

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Nearly 500 whales have died after a ‘heart-breaking’ mass stranding on two remote beaches in New Zealand. 

None of the 477 stranded whales could be refloated and all either died naturally or were euthanised, said Daren Grover, the general manager of Project Jonah, a nonprofit group which helps rescue whales.

The whales beached themselves on the Chatham Islands, which are home to about 600 people and located about 500 miles east of New Zealand’s main islands.

A string of dead pilot whales line the beach at Tupuangi Beach, Chatham Islands, in New Zealand's Chatham Archipelago

A string of dead pilot whales line the beach at Tupuangi Beach, Chatham Islands, in New Zealand’s Chatham Archipelago

None of the 477 stranded whales could be refloated and all either died naturally or were euthanised in a 'heartbreaking' loss

None of the 477 stranded whales could be refloated and all either died naturally or were euthanised in a ‘heartbreaking’ loss

The whales beached themselves on the Chatham Islands, which are home to about 600 people and located about 500 miles east of New Zealand's main islands

The whales beached themselves on the Chatham Islands, which are home to about 600 people and located about 500 miles east of New Zealand’s main islands

The Department of Conservation said 232 whales stranded themselves 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 stranding themselves on a remote Tasmanian beach.

‘These events are tough, challenging situations,’ the Department of Conservation wrote in a Facebook post. ‘Although they are natural occurrences, they are still sad and difficult for those helping.’

Grover said the remote location and presence of sharks in the surrounding waters meant they couldn’t mobilise volunteers to try to refloat the whales as they have in past stranding events.

‘We do not actively refloat whales on the Chatham Islands due to the risk of shark attack to humans and the whales themselves, so euthanasia was the kindest option,’ said Dave Lundquist, a technical marine advisor for the conservation department.

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

The Department of Conservation said 232 whales stranded themselves 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 stranding themselves on a remote Tasmanian beach

The deaths come two weeks after about 200 pilot whales died in Australia after stranding themselves on a remote Tasmanian beach

Grover said the remote location and presence of sharks in the surrounding waters meant they couldn't mobilise volunteers to try to refloat the whales as they have in past stranding events

Grover said the remote location and presence of sharks in the surrounding waters meant they couldn’t mobilise volunteers to try to refloat the whales as they have in past stranding events

Mass strandings of pilot whales are reasonably common in New Zealand, especially during the summer months. 

Scientists don’t know exactly what causes the whales to strand, although it appears their location systems can get confused by gently sloping sandy beaches.

Grover said there is a lot 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 echolocation and yet it doesn’t tell them that they are running out of water,’ Grover said. ‘They come closer and closer to shore and become disoriented. The tide can then drop from below them and before they know it, they’re stranded on the beach.’

Mass strandings of pilot whales are reasonably common in New Zealand, especially during the summer months

Mass strandings of pilot whales are reasonably common in New Zealand, especially during the summer months

Scientists don't know exactly what causes the whales to strand, although it appears their location systems can get confused by gently sloping sandy beaches

Scientists don’t know exactly what causes the whales to strand, although it appears their location systems can get confused by gently sloping sandy beaches

Because of the remote location of the beaches, the whale carcasses won’t be buried or towed out to sea, as is often the case, but instead will be 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 quite quickly,’ he said.

In 2017, more than 600 pilot whales washed up on the South Island at Farewell Spit, with more than 350 dying.

In 1918, around 1,000 pilot whales were stranded on the Chatham Islands, the largest whale stranding ever recorded.

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