Hundreds of pilot whales die in one of New Zealand’s largest whale strandings

More than 400 pilot whales beached themselves at Farewell Spit in New Zealand. Volunteers and experts have saved as many as possible.

The news of a mass whale stranding (at least 400 pilot whales) at Farewell Spit, New Zealand, had the world talking about its extent. Over the past week, hundreds of volunteers and NGOs tried to bring as much pilot whales as possible back to sea, but at least 300 of them were already dead when found.

pilot whales new zealand
Hundreds of pilot whales stranded themselves in New Zealand © Tim Cuff

Despite the effort of experts and volunteers, 70 per cent of them died during the night of 10 February. The living individuals were refloated, but most of them beached themselves again during low tide.

BBC reported that on 12 February 200 more pilot whales stranded themselves. Experts still don’t know the reason why whales came ashore. Andrew Lamason of Takaka’s conservation department suggests that Golden Bay is “almost a perfect trap for pilot whales for its geography”. According to authorities, it’s the third largest whale stranding in New Zealand’s history. In 1918, 1,000 whales beached themselves on the Chatham Islands, and in 1985 450 stranded at Great Barrier Island off the coast of Auckland.

Why pilot whales strand themselves

Many factors can lead whales to strand themselves. Among them are the complex social bonds pilot whales build in their pods, which lead individuals to go after old, sick individuals and thus beach themselves in shallows. Researchers claim, however, that this usually happens in small pods.

Others suggest that whale strandings are linked to human activities, especially seismic prospecting. This testing surveys the diffusion of seismic waves generated in an artificial way, including airguns – blasts used to find oil and gas deep underneath the ocean floor.

According to a study publish in the journal Nature, heavy noise pollution can have harmful effects on marine animals, particularly on those who based their own communication and geolocation systems on sound waves. “There is an urgent need to develop methods for assessing the effects of underwater man-made noise on cetaceans,” reads the introduction of the study (Implementation of a method to visualize noise-induced hearing loss in mass stranded cetaceans). “High intensity active sonar, and other loud noise sources, for example those from gas exploration, seismic surveys, etc., have the potential to cause lesions to exposed animals. Depending on the distance from the source, injuries can be lethal”.

What’s clear, not only among conservationists, is that there’s the need of properly regulating and programming human activities that can be harmful to marine wildlife.

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