Hundreds of whales stranded on New Zealand's beaches

Credit: Simin Li/Art Editor Credit: Simin Li/Art Editor

Two weeks ago, Farewell Spit in northern New Zealand saw one of its largest whale strandings ever. More than 650 pilot whales became stuck on a beach, leading to 400 of them dying. Whale strandings are common at Farewell Spit, and residents see trapped whales every year. Nonetheless, the numbers this year were unprecedented and shocked conservation officials. Whale strandings are caused by their navigational mistakes. They may follow the wrong currents that push them into shallow waters or make directional mistakes while chasing prey or escaping predators. 250 of the whales successfully made it back into the deep waters, refloated by locals and officials.

Unfortunately, many more could not be saved and had to be euthanized. Others became stranded again after returning to the beach; officials monitored the saved whales swimming nearby the beach. Large trucks transported about 200 of the whale carcasses to dunes a mile away, where they will rot. Unfortunately, the trucks could not reach some parts of the beach. The inaccessible carcasses will simply be left.

Andrew Lamason, an operations manager for the Depart of Conservation, admitted that leaving the whales in the water would make them rot faster, but would also place visitors of the beach in danger. Lamason said in a New York Times article “There is nothing attractive about these whales after they have
been on the beach for a few days. All their internal organs have exploded, the skin has peeled off, the smell is unbelievable...unbelievable.” Since internal gas can cause the whale organs and bodies to explode, officials punctured the whales to let the gas out. Pathologists at Massey University in New Zealand will study how exactly the whales died and organic processes that occur after their deaths.

Locals and tourists came in large numbers to help with the excavation and re-floating of the whales. They were warned about the dangers of dealing with whales. When they become agitated, they can easily injure of kill a human with the flick of a tail or fin. As unfortunate as this stranding is, pilot whales are not considered endangered.

There are about one million long-finned and 200,000 short-finned pilot whales worldwide. Short-finned pilot whales, the type that ended up on New Zealand’s beaches, inhabit the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Longfinned pilot whales prefer much cooler waters and can be found in the Northern Atlantic.
The large-scale death of so many pilot whales is reminiscent of the Faroe Island whaling tradition. The thousand-year-old tradition involves driving pilot whales into a bay where participants kill them in the water, often turning the entire bay red with blood. The tradition has come under fire and public
outrage time and time again.

Locals defend the practice,saying it is primarily for food. Pilot whales are protected under the MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act) worldwide. Unlike the Faroe Island tradition, the whale stranding was not caused by humans and was much less bloody. New Zealand currently has no method to stop strandings.