SYDNEY – Around 100 pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins died in a mass stranding over the weekend on the remote Chatham Islands, located about 800 kilometers (497 miles) off the east coast of New Zealand, officials reported on Wednesday.
Due to the remote location of Waitangi West Beach, where the marine mammals – 97 pilot whales and three dolphins – were stranded, as well as a power outage making contact between people difficult, the rescue teams could not arrive in time to save their lives, the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) said in a statement.
“Only 26 of the whales were still alive at this point, the majority of them appearing very weak, and were euthanized due to the rough sea conditions and almost certainty of there being great white sharks in the water which are brought in by a stranding like this,” DOC Biodiversity Ranger Jemma Welch said in a statement.
The pilot whales that were euthanized also include two others that had stranded on Monday morning.
During the operation on Sunday, representatives from Hokotehi Moriori Trust and Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust performed Māori karakia (prayers) to honor the spirits of the whales, which will be left on the beach to decompose naturally.
Project Jonah New Zealand, a group dedicated to saving whales, said in a statement on Wednesday that it was “saddened to hear of a mass pilot whale stranding earlier this week on the Chatham Islands.”
It added that the department of conservation was on site to gather data from the stranding and that locals had been asked to stay out of the water as the island has a population of great white sharks that could come to feed on the carcasses.
Such events are common in the Chatham Islands, where the world’s largest recorded mass stranding occurred in 1918, when some 1,000 pilot whales were trapped in that remote location.
In mid-October, at least 18 pilot whales died in New Zealand after being stranded on a beach on the North Island’s Coromandel Peninsula; in 2018, around 145 pilot whales died on Stewart Island, south of the South Island, and in 2011, more than 60 pilot whales died at Farewell Spit at the top of the South Island.
Scientists are often not been able to determine the reasons why pods of whales become stranded in shallow waters en masse. However, Whale Rescue, an organization in New Zealand, has said some possibilities include military use of ultra low-frequency sonar damaging inner ears and internal organs, echo location not accurate near a gently-sloping beach, navigational mistakes, chasing food, adverse weather and tidal conditions, as well as illness. Being social creatures, if one signals they are in trouble, many can come to help and also strand.