One of the largest mass strandings of cetaceans seems to have ended by Sunday, 12th of February, 2017. Since Friday, about 670 pilot whales stranded at Farewell Spit on New Zealand’s South Island. Some 320 of these marine mammals seem to have survived, while at least 350 animals regrettably died.

The news went around the world on Friday, 10th of February: 450 pilot whales stranded. Since then, hundreds of volunteers, guided by experts of New Zealand’s authorities and particularly the experienced stranding team of Project Jonah, struggled to keep the stranded animals wet and to take them out to the sea again with the flood. However, most animals could not be helped anymore, and they died. 20 of the pilot whales had to be euthanized. When a second stranding of about 220 pilot whales occurred, helpers expected the worst. But when the flood came on Saturday night, about 200 whales managed to return to the ocean. Another 17 animals were successfully taken out by the rescue teams and were able to join the group later. While we can’t be sure about that, we hope that there won’t be another stranding event.

Probably for topographic reasons, New Zealand is the country with the largest number of whale strandings, but also the country with the highest success rate of animals rescued by professional stranding teams. Farewell Spit extends into a cetacean migration corridor. There’s a lot of discussion about possible reasons for cetacean strandings. If all the animals belong to the same species, it is often assumed that some animals were sick, but not abandoned by their group. Atypical stranding events – which involve more than one species – were mostly caused by massive underwater noise. However, underwater noise may also be a reason for live strandings of but one species, e.g. deep-diving pilot whales. That’s why OceanCare always demands a transparent disclosure of human activities in the affected areas, also in order to rule out causes. Disorientation, injuries, illness, but also senility may be among the causes.

OceanCare supports stranding networks and rescue teams, e.g. British Divers Marine Life Rescue, which can get active immediately in case of emergency. Further, OceanCare is seeking thorough examination of the deceased animals, e.g. carrying out necropsies, to draw conclusions concerning possible causes.

OceanCare is grateful to the hundreds of volunteers in New Zealand, the authorities and the rescue teams, first and foremost Project Jonah, for their great efforts for the survival of the stranded whales.

Sources: AFP, Associated Press, The Guardian, Project Jonah, Reuters

Nicolas Entrup works as a consultant for OceanCare on underwater noise and other issues.