Volunteers are scrambling to rescue scores of whales after one of the worst strandings in New Zealand's history. About 275 of the pilot whales were already dead when magazine writer Cheree Morrison and two colleagues found them early Friday on Farewell Spit, a remote beach at the tip of the South Island. Within hours, hundreds of farmers, tourists, and teenagers were racing to keep the surviving whales alive, the AP reports. Morrison stumbled upon the whales after taking a pre-dawn trip with a photographer and a guide to capture the red glow of the sunrise. "You could hear the sounds of splashing, of blowholes being cleared, of sighing," she says, describing the scene as "utterly heartbreaking."
"The young ones were the worst," Morrison says. "Crying is the only way to describe it." The adult and baby whale carcasses were strewn three or four deep in places for hundreds of yards, often rolled over on the sand with their tail fins still aloft. Volunteer rescue group Project Jonah said a total of 416 whales had stranded. When high tide came, volunteers managed to refloat about 50 surviving whales while the other 80 or 90 remained beached. The volunteers then formed a human chain in the water to try to stop the creatures from swimming back and stranding themselves again. Farewell Spit, a sliver of sand that arches like a hook into the Tasman Sea, seems to confuse whales and has been the site of previous mass strandings. (Read more mass strandings stories.)