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500 pilot whales dead in two mass strandings off New Zealand coast

New Zealand's Department of Conservation confirmed Wednesday that all the stranded whales were deceased and that the carcasses would be left behind “to decompose naturally.” Photo courtesy of New Zealand Department of Conservation
1 of 2 | New Zealand's Department of Conservation confirmed Wednesday that all the stranded whales were deceased and that the carcasses would be left behind “to decompose naturally.” Photo courtesy of New Zealand Department of Conservation

Oct. 12 (UPI) -- More than 500 pilot whales have died in the past week after two groups beached themselves along the shore of Chatham Island, a remote cay off the New Zealand coast, according to authorities.

About 250 of the large ocean mammals were found dead on Chatham Island, while another 250 met the same fate at Pitt Island/Rangiauria to the south, said officials with Project Jonah, which conducts rescues in such events.

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Hundreds of the animals were found barely alive and had to be euthanized, said Daren Grover, the general manager of the project, according to The Guardian. The waters in the region are also known to be swarming with great white sharks, making it much too dangerous for rescuers to lug them back into the sea.

Dead whales in the shallow waters also would have already attracted the predators to the area.

Grover added that the effort lacked the manpower to handle a disaster of this magnitude.

"There simply aren't the networks of people or the availability of people to be able to attend any reflect of any surviving whales out there," he told the Guardian, adding that only 40 natives live on the isle.

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"It's incredibly remote -- one of the smallest self-contained populations on the planet. So the information of 250 whales stranding on their shores there, that's a tragedy almost beyond imagination."

New Zealand's Department of Conservation confirmed Wednesday that all the stranded whales were deceased and that the carcasses would be left behind "to decompose naturally."

The government agency also described pilot whales as "prolific stranders," and noted that scientists do not completely understand the phenomenon.

Just last month, more than 200 whales died after stranding themselves on a beach in Tasmania, and another 14 young sperm whales were found dead days earlier on nearby King Island.

And in late 2018, more than 50 whales died after they were found beached on the New Zealand shore less than a week after another stranding left another 145 whales dead.

In those cases, officials reckoned the mammals might have "misnavigated" or perhaps followed a sick or disoriented leader into perilously shallow waters.

The largest pilot whale disaster on Chatham Island happened more than 100 years ago, when 1,000 of the animals washed up on the shore in 1918.

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