Whales Strand In New Zealand: 7 Dead, 18 Refloated

Published January 7, 2012 3:36AM (EST)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Seven long-finned pilot whales died after being beached in New Zealand, and rescuers on Saturday were fighting to save 18 more of the marine mammals.

Seven of the 25-strong pod died after they stranded late Friday on Farewell Spit at the northwest corner of South Island, conservation officials said.

The surviving whales were floated off the beach at high tide. They were well offshore by mid-afternoon Saturday but still in danger as they swam north toward more shallow waters on the ebbing tide, said John Mason, area manager for the Department of Conservation.

Boats were being used to try to point the whales to deeper waters, and people were getting in the water to encourage the animals to head toward deeper sea, Mason said. But he said there was a risk the whales could come back into the shallows of the long, sloping headland spit area when the tide flowed back in later in the day.

Project Jonah whale rescue group chief executive Kimberly Muncaster said volunteers will be checking beaches to "help locate further strandings before it is too late to save the animals."

Adult male pilot whales measure up to 20 feet (6.1 meters) and weigh up to 3 tons, while adult females measure up to 16 feet (4.9 meters) and weigh up to 1.5 tons, according to the American Cetacean Society.

New Zealand has several whale strandings along its coastline each summer, with mass strandings of as many as 450 whales occurring. Since 1840, more than 5,000 strandings of whales and dolphins have been recorded on New Zealand's coast.

In November, 47 pilot whales died and 18 were euthanized after they stranded on tidal flats at the tip of Farewell Spit.

Whale experts have been unable to explain why the mammals swim into dangerously shallow waters.

By Salon Staff

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