Rescuers successfully refloated 28 pilot whales stranded on a beach in New Zealand on Tuesday, but the animals remained close to shore and could beach themselves again, wildlife officials said.
“While the whales have come close to shore at times, they remain free-swimming,” whale conservation charity Project Jonah New Zealand said on its Facebook page. They’ll keep monitoring the animals to make sure they don’t strand again.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) said the pod of long-finned pilot whales was seen beached early Monday at Farewell Spit. Around 60 volunteers worked around the clock to save them.
“The whales have been close to shore and it’s uncertain whether they will swim off or possibly re-strand,” a DOC spokesperson said. “DOC rangers and volunteers remain on-site ready to respond if the whales start swimming for shore and become stranded again.”
Farewell Spit is a narrow sand point at the northern end of the Golden Bay on South Island, the biggest of the two major islands of New Zealand. In the past fifteen years, at least ten pilot whale strandings have happened there.
The most recent was in February 2017, when almost 700 of the marine mammals beached, resulting in 250 deaths. In November, about 100 pilot whales died in a mass stranding on New Zealand’s remote Chatham Islands.
Mass strandings remain a mystery
New Zealand and neighbouring Australia are hotspots for mass whale strandings. Marine biologists don’t know why the stranding happen.
Some researchers think that pilot whales can go off track after being attracted by food close to the shoreline, or sometimes they follow a leader or gather around an injured or distressed whale.
Olaf Meynecke, a whale researcher at Australia’s Griffith University, said pilot whales use sophisticated sonar to find prey and for orientation, so some theories link strandings to changes in electromagnetic fields.
“These changes can be caused by solar storms or earthquakes (seismic activities), but there is also a strong connection between active sonar, for example naval sonar, and dolphin strandings, including pilot whales,” Meynecke said.
The biggest beaching in modern history was recorded in Australia, also last year, when almost 470 pilot whales died after beaching themselves on the country’s remote southern coast.
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