Experts have sounded the alarm after nearly 500 whales were reported stranded in New Zealand’s Chatham Islands, warning they are unlikely to survive. 250 pilot whales were found to have beached themselves at Pitt Island, just days after over 215 whales died after stranding in the northwest corner of Chatham Island. Marking one of the species’ worst recorded stranding events, experts have warned that these 250 have almost no chance of survival. By comparison, around 300 animals strand in New Zealand annually, according to official figures, although it is not uncommon for groups of between 20 and 50 pilot whales to run aground.
Massey University marine ecologist Professor Karen Stockin warned that the chances of survival among these whales were “zero to none”.
She said, “Pitt Island only has one [Department of Conservation] ranks there and they are trying to mobilize some of the team from Chatham Island in response.”
When contacted by the New Zealand Herald for comment, a DOC spokesman said it was dealing with a “mass stranding” on Pitt Island and had sent a team over to “assess and deal with the situation”.
The body has previously said it does not actively float whales stranded on the island because of the risk of shark attacks on humans and the whales.
Prof Stockin said: “We are talking about harsh conditions, a very small number of staff and few residents: this is really a case of assessing whether someone is still alive and likely to end up on euthanasia again.”
Project Jonah, a non-profit organization that helps rescue animals and protect marine mammals, tweeted: “It’s been quite the weekend with the mass stranding in the Chatham Islands, multiple calls about possible whale and dolphin strandings in Tāmaki Makaurau, a leopard seal incident in Timaru that required police intervention and a few phone calls about seals in unsafe places.”
The group described the remote islands – home to fewer than 800 people – as a “challenging place” to mount rescues. They added that stranding events are “not uncommon” on the islands, with the largest recorded event involving an estimated 1,000 whales in 1918.
In a series of tweets, they wrote: “This week we thought we would share how we are preparing for the increase in strandings and callouts for Project Jonah during the summer months.
“The first way we prepare is to have the right equipment available. We have 7 trailers based strategically around the country ready to respond to strandings. From our oldest in Kerikeri to our newest in Christchurch, these are geared up and ready to roll.
“Stocked with buckets, sheets, towels, shovels + first aid kits and our specialist equipment including dolphin lifting mats, lifting straps and our inflatable pontoon kit. Each trailer is inspected, serviced annually and can be easily connected and mobilized where needed.”
Experts note that it remains a mystery why these strandings occur and why they sometimes coincide with similar strandings in southern Australia.
Pilot whales are very sociable, so it’s possible that these creatures, which grow to over six meters in length, can follow their podmates who stray into danger.
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Prof Stockin said: “This time of year is the start of the stranding season and I find it really interesting that the patterns we’re seeing in South Australia and some of our offshore islands are very close together. It’s in itself a really interesting part of the work to be done.”
She noted that this event, which created “one of the largest stranding events for this species, in New Zealand and globally” could have a “significant” impact on local populations.
She said: “The amount of loss to the population is significant. What that means for the fitness and viability of the population, we don’t know, and not a lot of work has really been done.”
Fellow Massey researcher Dr. Emma Betty added that predicting these impacts was challenging “especially when dealing with a population for which there is limited biological information available”.
“We don’t have a good understanding of the current size of the pilot whale population in New Zealand waters, but some of our recent work has provided estimates of key reproductive parameters.”