477 pilot whales die stranded in New Zealand

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (HPD) — Some 477 pilot whales, also called pilot whales, have died stranded on two remote New Zealand islands in recent days, officials say.

None of the animals could be refloated and all died naturally or were euthanized, a “disheartening” loss, said Daren Grover, CEO of Project Jonah, a nonprofit group that helps rescue whales.

The whales were stranded on the Chatham Islands, an archipelago home to about 600 people that lies about 500 miles (800 kilometers) east of New Zealand’s main islands.

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

The deaths came two weeks after 200 pilot whales in Australia died after washing up on a remote Tasmanian beach.

“These episodes are tough, complicated situations,” the Department of Conservation wrote in a Facebook post. “Although they are natural incidents, they are still sad and difficult for those who help.”

Grover pointed out that they had not been able to mobilize volunteers to try to refloat the whales, as they have done on other occasions, due to the remoteness of the place and the presence of sharks in nearby waters.

“We do not actively refloat whales in the Chatham Islands due to the risk of shark attacks on humans and the whales themselves, so euthanasia was the most humane option,” said Dave Lundquist, technical adviser to the conservation department.

Mass pilot whale strandings are relatively frequent in New Zealand, especially in the summer months. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes the phenomenon, although it appears that gently rising sandy beaches confuse their location systems.

There’s plenty of food for the whales around the Chatham Islands, Grover said, and it’s possible that when they come ashore they’ll quickly move from deep water to shallow areas.

“They rely on their echolocation, but it doesn’t tell them they’re running out of water,” Grover said. “They get closer and closer to shore and become disoriented. Then the tide can go out and before they know it they’re stranded on the beach.”

Because of the remote location of the beaches, animal 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 go back to nature pretty quickly,” he said.

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