CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- At last count, at least 198 pilot whales had become stranded on the beaches of New Zealand's South Island. Officials with New Zealand's Department of Conservation confirmed Friday that at least 24 of those whales had perished. Conservation officials and local volunteers are racing to save the remaining whales.
The massive pod of whales are stranded on what's called Farewell Spit, a narrow finger of rock and sand that stretches out into the sea off the northern tip of the South Island. The spit, which extends eastward from Cape Farewell, forms the northern boundary of Golden Bay.
The spit is a stranding hotspot, as the currents between New Zealand's two main islands can push fish and sea mammals onto the narrow hook-shaped strip of land.
Andrew Lamason, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation, said that rescuers don't currently need extra help from the public, but additional volunteers could be called on tomorrow.
"Refloating stranded whales is a difficult and potentially dangerous job, so it's important we have the right people on the ground tonight trying to get these whales back to safety," Lamason told CNN.
He predicted more whales are likely to die before the situation is resolved. Stranded whales need cool, wet conditions to survive an extended period of time while stranded. But the Farewell Spit was bathed in hot sun for much of Friday.
"It hasn't been a great day to be a stranded whale," Lamason said. "This is a big stranding. It's a real challenge."
Some of the whales have been successfully re-floated, but several dozen remain stranded, and the rescuers were running out of daylight at last report.
"We can't have people overnight in the water with whales. It's just far too dangerous," Lamason told The New Zealand Herald.
Officials say high tide on Saturday evening may prove the next ideal time to refloat the remaining whales. It's not clear why or how the whales became stranded in the first place. Some have suggested their echolocation skills aren't well suited for the shallow waters south of the spit, while others say the especially social creatures may have rushed to the aid of one or two stranded whales only to become stuck themselves.
Pilot whales are one of the largest species of the family oceanic dolphins; only killer whales are larger in size.