This past February, New Zealand experienced its third-largest whale stranding on Farewell Spit since the 1800s. Nearly 700 pilot whales beached themselves on the spit, and almost 350 of them died. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation first discovered approximately 400 whales beached on the spit. In the following days, they found hundreds more had beach themselves as well. These ongoing strandings triggered a mass refloating rescue to help guide the whales back into the deeper water.
Conservation officials, animal welfare group Project Jonah, and over 500 volunteers helped to save the stranded pilot whales. At one point the volunteers formed a human chain in the water to ensure that the whales would not re-beach themselves. When the mass stranding was over, Farewell Spit was closed to the public while the Department of Conservation dealt with the dead bodies.
It’s unclear exactly why whales mass breach, but according to the Department of Conservation, whales can have problems with their echolocation in shallower waters. In the summertime whales tend to follow their food sources closer to shore and may have trouble getting back to deeper waters. And according to the agency, since pilot whales travel in pods, the pod might follow a beached whale to help it, but instead the whole pod gets stranded.