WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - One hundred and forty-five pilot whales died over the weekend, after they became stranded on a remote New Zealand beach.
The pilot whales were discovered by hikers in two pods about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) apart late Saturday on Stewart Island. About 75 were already dead and conservation workers decided to euthanize the others due to their poor condition and remote location.
Only about 375 people live on Stewart Island, which is also called Rakiura. The whales were found at Mason's Bay about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the main township of Oban.
"You feel for the animals, it's just a really sad event," said Ren Leppens, the Rakiura operations manager for the Department of Conservation. "It's the kind of thing you don't want to see. You wish you could understand the reasoning why the whales strand better, so you could intervene."
Leppens said the whales were half buried in sand and not in good health, indicating they had been there for perhaps a day before they were found. He said staff shot the whales and the carcasses would be left where they were for nature to take its course.
Travel blogger and Virginia native Liz Carlson wrote that she was on a five-day hike on a remote part of Stewart Island when she and partner Julian Ripoll found the pilot whales Saturday evening. She said they rushed into the water.
"Desperately we grabbed their tails and pushed and yelled, before we got hammered by them thrashing around," she wrote on Instagram. "It was useless — they were so big and heavy and the realization we could do nothing to save them was the worst feeling I've ever experienced."
She said her friend ran 15 kilometers (9 miles) to a hut to tell rangers and she stayed with the whales, dragging the smallest baby back into the water every few minutes before it would beach itself again.
"I knew they would inevitably die," she wrote. "I sank to my knees in the sand screaming in frustration and crying, with the sound of dozens of dying whales behind me, utterly alone."
Whale strandings are relatively common in New Zealand during the Southern Hemisphere spring and summer. Scientists believe strandings can be caused by a number of factors, such as the whales trying to escape predators, falling ill, or navigating incorrectly.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, 10 pygmy killer whales were found stranded at Ninety Mile Beach on the North Island of New Zealand. Two whales later died there, however conservation workers and volunteers in New Zealand managed to refloat six surviving stranded whales on Tuesday and were hoping the animals would soon swim away into deeper water.
On Monday evening, crews transported the remaining animals on hay-lined trailers to Rarawa Beach on the opposite coast of the peninsula, where the sea conditions were calmer. The trip took about an hour, said Department of Conservation ranger Jamie Werner.
Werner said the whales were then placed in a tidal stream to relieve the pressure on their bodies. But he said the whales became too buoyant and were moved onto the sand, where volunteers kept a vigil through the night, regularly cooling the animals with water.
Werner said about 200 people showed up to help, and groups of a dozen per whale lifted the animals into the sea Tuesday morning and refloated them on the high tide. He said that two of the weaker whales beached themselves again.