Nearly 100 whales die after mass stranding in New Zealand

Sam Hancock
·3-min read
Pilot whales are seen stranded on the beach in Chatham Islands, New Zealand, on 22 November (Jemma Welch via Reuters )
Pilot whales are seen stranded on the beach in Chatham Islands, New Zealand, on 22 November (Jemma Welch via Reuters )

A mass stranding on the remote Chatham Islands – about 800km off New Zealand’s east coast – has caused the deaths of 100 whales and dolphins.

In total 97 pilot whales and three bottlenose dolphins died, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) which said it was first notified of the incident on Sunday at 12.30pm.

While the majority of the animals were reported being beached over the weekend, rescue efforts were slow due to the remote location of the islands.

DOC biodiversity ranger Jemma Welch said a power outage also made it difficult for people on the islands to contact anyone. According to Ms Welch, it was 3pm on Wednesday by the time rangers arrived at the scene on Waitangi West Beach.

Ms Welch revealed that 26 of the whales were “still alive” when they were found with “the majority of them appearing very weak”.

However, she said they all had to be “euthanised due to the rough sea conditions and [the] certainty of there being great white sharks in the water, which are brought in by a standing like this”.

The islands, which are home to less than 700 people, are known as a whale stranding “hotspot” with the largest-ever stranding in New Zealand’s history being recorded in 1918 – resulting in the deaths of 1,000 animals.

Sam Wild, a diver and photographer, is based on the islands. He shared the incident with his 12,100 followers alongside some astonishing images. Mr Wild said that divers are made to get out of the water when strandings occur, for fear that great whites will come along to feed on whale carcasses. He called the event “emotional” and warned his viewers that the images were “not pretty”.

Hokotehi Moriori Trust and Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust accompanied DOC staff to the beach on Sunday where they performed a traditional blessing to honour the spirit of the whales – the bodies of which will be left to decompose naturally.

While strandings have occurred around the world, throughout modern history, marine biologists still cannot be certain why. A popular train of thought is that due to disorientation or feeling they might be under threat, whales and dolphins seek refuge ashore causing them to suffocate and eventually die.

Convincing scientific research has shown that “climate can affect when and where strandings occur by causing the animals to be closer to coastlines in some cases,” according to Professor Patrick Miller of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at the University of St Andrews.

He told The Independent mass strandings are “more likely for group-living species, like pilot whales, because group members may simply follow each other even into dangerous situations”.

Prof Miller also said he believed the strandings on Chatham Islands were “unlikely due to human activities in such a pristine location, but rather were likely driven by the nearshore movements of their prey and a tendency for those species to live in large groups”.

Scientists are gradually improving their ability to understand “when and where strandings are likely to take place,” Prof Miller said, “and how some human-driven changes like underwater noise and climate change affect the likelihood, timing and location of strandings.”

It is estimated that 2,000 cetaceans (whales and dolphins) beach themselves annually around the world, 300 of which happen in New Zealand.

This means around 15 per cent of the world’s strandings occur in New Zealand alone.

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