Mass Graveyard of Pilot Whales on a New Zealand Beach

According to Project Noah, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of stranding in the world—about 300 dolphins and whales are beached each year, usually between January and February; however, the events in the past week seem to be one of the worst in the countries history. Last week over 650 pilot whales stranded themselves in Farewell Spit, New Zealand. Various volunteer efforts took place to get as many whales refloated as possible, but nearly half died during the effort. Volunteers formed human chains to prevent further whales from approaching the beach; they sang songs and said prayers; and they draped the whales in cool, wet clothes and sheets to help with the refloating effort. The estimated 400 pilot whales that died will be buried in the sand dunes further along the beach restricted from the public access. According to reports, 20 whales needed to be euthanized as of Saturday, and the carcasses that remained on the beach as of Monday, needed to be pierced to release any built up gas to prevent any explosions.

Despite the consistency of stranded and beached whales in New Zealand around this time, it is still unclear why these animals beach themselves. One strong theory is due to the the shape of the coastline and the shallow waters. In shallow waters, whales use echolocation, but these shallow coasts are difficult to navigate for older, sick, or injured whales. The unique arc of Farewell Spit is surrounded by the open ocean with the bay area containing large sand banks that gradually become shallower closer to the coast, make it difficult for any whale to navigate using echo-location.  In these instances, it becomes too late for the whale to turn around and they become stranded. Since pilot whales form strong social bonds, these animals emit distress signals, signaling other members of their pod; thus attracting other members of their pod to follow suit causing a domino effect of beaching. Some theories follow the whales feeding pattern through the region; while, scientists have also looked into the environmental impact of changing ocean temperatures, oceanic pollution, and environmental toxins such as ‘red tides’ to explain the higher populations of pilot whales migrating though that area.

Sources

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38953557

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38953165

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericmack/2017/02/11/why-are-hundreds-of-whales-beaching-themselves-and-dying-this-week/#53ed22af6cc6

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/world/asia/dead-whales-new-zealand.html?_r=0

By Mikayla Sarafin, Intern