A mass stranding on New Zealand’s Chatham Islands resulted in the deaths of almost 100 pilot whales and three dolphins, the country’s Department of Conservation (DOC) said Wednesday.
By the time officials arrived at the remote beach where the mammals were found, most of them had already died, and the survivors were in poor shape.
“Only 26 of the whales were still alive at this point, the majority of them appearing very weak, and were euthanised 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, noting that a power outage further complicated the rescue attempt.
Representatives from the Indigenous Hokotehi Moriori and Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trusts performed a Māori prayer called a karakia as a farewell ritual to honor the whales and help guide their spirits, the department added.
New Zealand and the Chatham Islands, in particular, are a hot spot for strandings. The largest mass stranding in the country’s history occurred in 1918 on the archipelago, affecting about 1,000 pilot whales.
The exact cause of strandings is hard to pinpoint, especially when an entire herd or large percentage of it is affected. Scientists believe several factors play a role, including geographical features, climate change, a rapidly falling tide, predators, or extreme or unusual weather. Mass strandings typically occur when the herd follows a sick or disoriented member toward harm, as they have strong social bonds, according to the DOC.