The ordeal of 198 pilot whales stranded in New Zealand's upper North Island came to an end last night when all remaining whales were confirmed dead. 67 whales were saved in total, which left a final death toll at the popular tourist destination standing at 131.
The stranding began last Friday when 30 whales beached themselves at Farewell Split, near Nelson. This increased to 60, and then 143 by the weekend. All up, this was the largest New Zealand stranding since 1985.
Stranded whales generally die from dehydration combined with health issues caused by their own weight crushing their internal organs. Some whales also drown when high-tide covers their blowholes.
It took the Department of Conservation along with Project Jonah, who specialise in beached whales, and 30 marine medics aided by 500 local volunteers, to get the whales back into the water. But despite the manpower, the weather made things difficult. "The weather on Friday was terrible because there wasn't a cloud in the sky," Project Jonah General Manager, Daren Grover told us. "This caused the whales to blister and basically cook."
With the rescue mission officially ending last night, efforts will now turn to cleaning up the area. Some of the 131 dead whales will be laid in the sand dunes at Golden Bay to provide food for the local bird sanctuary, while others will be tethered offshore to provide food for seagulls, Daren told VICE.
While unusually large, the stranding is not New Zealand's largest. In 1918 a world record 1000 whales stranded on Long Beach in the Chatham Islands. Pilot whales again made headlines in 1985 when 450 whales were left stranded at Kawa Bay on Great Barrier Island.
Pilot whales are known to strand at a higher frequency because of their "strong social bonds" explained Daren. "When one whale goes astray the whole pack often follows and pilot whales often travel in very large packs."
Other causes of stranding include natural or environmental factors such as whales beaching themselves when they're old and unable to navigate rough weather, or encountering difficulty giving birth. New evidence also suggests that artificial sonar signals can also play a part. Whales rely on their hearing for communication and finding food and this can be scrambled by human sonar activity.
Farewell Split has a history of whale strandings, said Daren. "If you were to design a natural environmental whale trap, you'd design Farewell Split". The area has claimed over 680 whales since record keeping began with the last incident leaving 28 pilot whales stranded in 2012.
All images via Project Jonah
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