As three separate pods of whales have beached over three nights, and Farewell Spit has been closed to volunteer rescuers as darkness falls there is fear there will be carnage in the morning.
As the sun set on Saturday, the Department of Conservation cleared the beach of volunteers as it became too risky to carry out efforts to refloat the up to 200 whales beached in five separate groups along the coast from as far as Puponga to Triangle Flats along the Spit.
As efforts were abandoned, leaving the nearly 200 whales struggling overnight, it is feared even more whales could be stranded by sunrise in yet another mass stranding.
Volunteers led by the DOC tried desperately on Saturday to deal with the new beachings on top of the remainder of the original standing of 416 on Thursday.
DOC operations manager Andrew Lamaman confirmed the whales in the latest stranding were unmarked, which indicated they were from a new, unidentified pod.
Existing volunteers and DOC staff were attempting to reach the fresh stranding sites, while still trying to keep the ones from the original stranding on Thursday night alive.
Volunteers had until 8pm on Saturday night, when DOC would close the beach until the morning.
At high tide this morning, hundreds of whales were pushed offshore by volunteers who formed a human chain in the waves.
However, despite efforts by volunteers the whales are once again at risk.
This afternoon, DOC cleared the spit and euthanised 20 of the surviving whales with a rifle, whales which were too ill to be rescued or stay alive.
Operations Manager for DOC Golden Bay Andrew Lamason said it was a matter of weighing up resources.
“You have to hedge your bets, whether you use your resources to save 20 whales that are very sick or 200 healthy ones.”
The tide is now going out in Golden Bay, with low tide around 5pm.
He said the whales are only seven kilometres along the spit and are still in very real danger.
“We’ve got boats out there and we’re trying to keep them offshore, but they’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
Farewell spit is 26 kilometres long and the whales need to get to the end before they can reach the open sea.
Volunteers turned up on Friday and focused on keeping the whales cool as well as propping them up with sand to prevent them from breaking their fins.
Hundreds of volunteers turned up on Saturday morning to help the whales back into the sea as the tide came in.
Project Jonah general manager Daren Grover said there were about 40 whales left.
About 80 of the whales stranded earlier were either successfully refloated on Saturday morning or they had joined the larger super pod around midday.
“We don’t know why the super pod came in,” Grover said.
“They may have been picking up some calls from the whales here and come in to respond. It’s very unusual, not something we have seen before.
“As long as [the super pod] heads in the direction they are going in now it’s okay,” he said.
Volunteer Kerstin Moll was in the water as the pod approached. She said she was afraid the pod would come closer.
“They were full of energy and moving really fast,” she said.
“They had a bunch of stingrays with the new whales. The smaller pod came close, I think what they are looking for is a larger whale who can lead them. The people are just trying to make them follow the others, but they didn’t.”
Earlier, the volunteers were warned of the threat of sharks in the area.
Some of the 100 stranded whales on Saturday morning had been attacked, and there had been a concern over blood in the water. There was also worry over stingrays.
Earlier Department of Conservation Golden Bay Operations manager Andrew Lamason had said high tide was at 11.30am and they would try to re-float the stranded whales then.
“We have a bit of a problem today with the hot sun which is not good for the whales. We were lucky yesterday with the cloud,” he said. “People will have to be more vigilant today with buckets and towels.”
HUGE STRANDING’S TOLL
Thursday night’s stranding of the pod of 416 whales was thought to be the third largest stranding of whales recorded in the country’s history.
The huge pod had been seen swimming in Golden Bay that night.
About 300 – close to 75 per cent – had died by the time Department of Conservation (DOC) staff arrived on Friday morning.
The dark-coloured carcasses were strewn along the beach, most of them at the high-tide mark.
Department of Conservation operations manager Neil Murray said the stranding was the worst he had seen.
“There’s a disastrous number of dead animals there at the top of the beach,” Murray said.
“The carnage at the top of the beach, that’s out of mind, just that volume of animals.”
Staff from DOC, Project Jonah and volunteers attempted to re-float the survivors at high tide, about 10.30am, but were only partially successful.
An estimated 50 whales, including the pod’s matriarch, returned to the sea.
However, the remaining 80 to 90 survivors re-stranded in shallow water.
The mission for volunteers then changed to keeping them alive as the tide receded and the whales were exposed in puddles, or on the sand.
About 500 volunteers used sheets to cover the whales’ thick skin and buckets to continuously pour water over them to keep them cool.
Having been cared for by hundreds of volunteers, about 50 surviving whales were left alone overnight. It had been hoped they would re-float naturally and swim back to sea at high tide, about 11.30pm, but that had not happened.
Murray said because the high tide was at dark, volunteers would leave for their safety.
“We just can’t leave people out here for the night,” he said.”You can’t guarantee safety.”
He said there were a “whole bunch of reasons” why it wasn’t safe for volunteers to remain after dark, including the risk of shark attack.
He said at least one of the whales had marks on it consistent with being chewed by a shark, which could have happened while it was stranded in the shallows.
WHY DO WHALES STRAND?
There were many theories among the people at Farewell Spit for why the whales stranded.
Murray said it was possible there were some sick animals that went in to strand and the rest of the pod followed.
Project Jonah coordinator Mark Rigby said he could not comment on the reasons for the stranding.
“All we know is it keeps happening. There will be people who will argue that it’s natural. We’re here for the welfare of the animals.”