22 Feb 2021

Dozens of whales in stranding at Farewell Spit - Project Jonah

10:07 pm on 22 February 2021

More than 40 long-finned pilot whales that were stranded on a remote beach at the top of the South Island have been refloated.

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DOC says it looks as if the whales have never stranded before because they do not bear any marks or abrasions. Photo: Supplied / Project Jonah

The Department of Conservation was first alerted to the mass stranding at the base of Farewell Spit in Golden Bay by a tour operator at 9.30 today.

A spokesperson said nine of the original 49 whales had died.

A team of about 65 volunteers, Department of Conservation rangers and Project Jonah experts have been keeping the mammals cool and wet throughout the day.

At about 9.30pm, the refloated whales were swimming about 80 metres offshore from the stranding site.

Conservation staff will check the beach at first light to see whether any have re-stranded overnight.

Earlier, DOC ranger Amanda Harvey told Checkpoint that the incoming tide had reached most of the pod, although there were concerns that one large whale was not responding as much as they would like.

Project Jonah was taking out a pontoon to try to encourage it to head to sea.

Harvey said it looked as if the whales had never stranded before because they did not bear any marks or abrasions and they were in very good condition.

She said it has been a hot day at the site but DOC staff, Project Jonah members and other volunteers responded quickly and throughout the day the whales had been kept as cool as possible.

Conditions were extremely good for a refloat, she said.

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Photo: Supplied / Project Jonah

Some volunteers were relieved by others who handled "the wet phase".

"The idea is to group them [the whales] as much as possible together."

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Project Jonah members at Farewell Spit. Photo: Supplied / Project Jonah

Harvey said it was often a female that took the lead.

"The idea is to get them together and let them decide and take it from there."

Boats and spotters were set to follow them until it was dark.

Some volunteers would stay on the beach overnight because it was possible they could strand again in the early morning, Harvey said.

Farewell Spit had been the frequent site for whale strandings and scientists were still trying to work out why.

The last mass pilot whale stranding on Farewell Spit was in February 2017 when an estimated 600-700 whales were beached.

About 250 died while the rest were refloated.

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