Rescuers today began moving the 24 survivors of a pod of 80 pilot whales that stranded themselves on a remote northern New Zealand beach to a more sheltered area in an attempt to save them.
The whales first came ashore on Wednesday in the second mass stranding in the area in little over a month.
More than 50 died on their first day out of the water – including some that were injured or in severe distress that had to be put down.
Officials were loading the animals onto trucks that will carry them from Spirits Bay to Rarawa Beach, 30 miles to the south, where rescuers hope to refloat them.
“As far as I’m aware, this has not been tried before to this scale (in New Zealand),” Anton van Helden, a whale expert at New Zealand’s national museum, told the New Zealand Herald newspaper.
“It’s a huge undertaking and definitely contains risks for the whales, but is basically their only chance.”
A pod of 58 pilot whales stranded on nearby Karikari beach in mid-August, and 101 pilot whales stranded on the same beach in 2007.
Yesterday, volunteers moved the 24 surviving members of the pod to a nearby estuary where they could be kept wet but safe from strong winds and waves pounding the beach. The weather conditions made refloating the creatures at Spirits Bay impossible.
Today, the first six whales were loaded onto beds of straw on trucks and trailers for the one-hour journey to Rarawa Beach. The rescue operation was expected to last all day.
Sioux Campbell, a spokeswoman for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, said the transport operation was large and difficult but she was confident the remaining whales could be saved.
“We’ve done other transports by truck before, not just in Northland but around the country,” she told the New Zealand Herald. “This is maybe the most whales we’ve moved by truck and it is the longest journey.”
New Zealand has one of the world’s highest rates of whale strandings, mainly during their migrations to and from Antarctic waters, one of which begins in September.
Since 1840, the Department of Conservation has recorded more than 5,000 strandings of whales and dolphins around the New Zealand coast. Scientists have not been able to determine why whales become stranded.