From: Associated Press
Published November 30, 2004 12:00 AM

At Least 55 Whales Die in New Zealand Mass Stranding, Officials Say

WELLINGTON, New Zealand − Rescuers were working feverishly Tuesday to float two whales stranded for two days on a North Island beach, where 55 pilot whales carcasses litter the sand, conservation officials said.


The mass stranding of 75 pilot whales was only discovered Monday and rescuers found only 21 still alive when they reached the isolated scene, Conservation Department area manager John Gaukrodger said.


Rescuers believe the whales may have been chasing food when they stranded on Opoutere Beach, on North Island's east coast overnight Sunday.


By midmorning Tuesday 18 of the mammals had been refloated by rescuers who used a large digger to channel water to the animals, keeping them wet while waiting for a high tide later Monday.


Three coaxed back out to sea during Monday night were too weak to handle the conditions and were turned back into shore by rescuers for another attempt Tuesday. One was refloated during the morning.


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Gaukrodger said volunteers had worked for 18 hours nonstop keeping whales moist and trying to get some movement as they lay on the beach and waited for the tide.


"Lying in one pozzie (position) for some time is not good for them," he said.


The mammals weakened condition meant they may have to be euthanized if efforts to refloat them failed.


Rescuers had been too busy trying to save whales to think much about the carnage around them on the beach he said, adding, "it is quite a morbid scene."


The mass stranding is the first around the New Zealand coast this southern hemisphere summer.


Australian authorities said Tuesday that a total of 115 whales and dolphins had died after swimming onto beaches on two southern Australian islands.


Ninety-seven mammals -- 72 pilot whales and 25 bottlenose dolphins -- died after beaching Sunday on King Island between the Australian mainland and the southeast island state of Tasmania.


On Maria Island, 450 kilometers (280 miles) away, another 19 dead pilot whales were beached Monday.


More than 30 rescuers dragged 24 whales -- each about four meters (13 feet) long and weighing one ton -- into deep water in an exhausting 10-hour rescue operation that ended Monday night, officials said.


The risk that the rescued whales would beach themselves again appeared to have passed by Tuesday morning.


Scientists have still to explain the factors which trigger such mass strandings by the giant sea mammals.


Source: Associated Press


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