Volunteers Save 28 Beached Whales on New Zealand Beach in Three-Day Rescue Mission

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Feb. 24 2021, Updated 1:44 p.m. ET

With less than 3,000 nationwide COVID-19 cases over the past year, New Zealand has proven that it is very capable of handling major disasters. So when 49 whales were found stranded on a New Zealand beach this week, it's really no surprise that hundreds of volunteers rallied together and managed to save 28 beached whales

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After a three-day rescue mission, fears that the whales could not be saved, and hundreds of volunteers dedicating their time to helping these whales, the ordeal is finally over. Keep reading for all the details.

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New Zealand volunteers worked together to save 40 beached whales.

On Monday, Feb. 22, a tour operator spotted about 50 long-finned pilot whales beached on Farewell Spit, a natural sandspit found on Golden Bay, South Island, New Zealand, as reported by AP News. Representatives from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and local rescue group Project Jonah immediately arrived at the scene to help, and the organization updated Facebook followers on the situation throughout the week.

Project Jonah then posted that about nine of those whales were unfortunately discovered dead. Marine mammal medics from the organization were quickly dispatched to help, and the group worked to keep the whales wet and protected from the sun with towels; they later helped refloat the 38 living whales and keep them comfortable in the shallow water by the shore, Stuff reported.

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Unfortunately, by Tuesday morning, Project Jonah found that only 28 whales survived the night — all of whom were found stranded on the beach once again. A group of 50 responders showed up early Tuesday morning to help refloat the whales for a morning high tide. However, the whales were showing signs of fatigue, so Tuesday evening, a large group of around 150 volunteers formed a human chain to help encourage the 28 whales to swim deeper into the ocean. 

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Refloating the whales is important, "so they reorientate, and we keep them together, otherwise there's a risk of re-stranding if they take off on their own,” Darren Foxwell, the whale stranding operations manager for the Department of Conservation, told Stuff. "Then we let them go as a pod when they've all refloated, and fingers crossed, they take off out to sea and don't re-strand overnight."

The Department of Conservation dispatched boats to monitor the situation overnight — and by Wednesday morning, there was no sign of any whales on Farewell Spit’s shores. That’s actually a good thing, because it means the pod of 28 whales swam back out into the open ocean. That said, Project Jonah wrote that overnight during the high tide, 10 of the whales who had passed away were no longer on Farewell Spit; they had presumably been carried by the water down south. 

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Saving these 28 whales was by no means easy. Project Jonah still has to pay for flights for medics who came to help, and to replace equipment that was lost during this rescue mission. You can donate to Project Jonah here.

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Why do whales beach?

A variety of factors can cause whales to become stranded ashore. Changes in water temperature, navigation errors, sonar interference, bad weather, shallow water, predators, illness, and old age can all cause a pod of whales to wind up on a beach instead of in the ocean. Some whales even head to beaches on purpose, as a hunting tactic.

It’s unclear exactly why this pod of 50 whales beached on New Zealand’s Farewell Spit, but hopefully the 28 who survived the stranding are now thriving in the open waters. 

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