At Infamous 'Death Trap for Whales,' a Sad New Find

34 long-finned pilot whales found beached in mass stranding at New Zealand's Farewell Spit
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 18, 2022 7:42 AM CDT
At Infamous 'Death Trap for Whales,' a Sad New Find
In this Feb. 10, 2017, photo, whales are stranded at Farewell Spit in New Zealand.   (Tim Cuff/New Zealand Herald via AP, File)

Farewell Spit, a perhaps aptly named 16-mile stretch of sand on the remote northern end of New Zealand's South Island, is making headlines for sad news that's become commonplace there. The island nation's Department of Conservation reported on Friday that 34 long-finned pilot whales have been found stranded on the beach that's become known as a "death trap for whales," per Deutsche Welle. Twenty-nine of the whales had already perished, and officials attempted to send the survivors back to safety. "It has been confirmed that the 5 surviving pilot whales were refloated with the 11am high tide this morning," the department posted Friday on Facebook.

That news came with a caveat, however: Shortly after the refloating mission, one live pilot whale and one dead one were found beached several miles away, and it's not clear if they were from the group of five that had been refloated. Officials tell the BBC they had to euthanize the surviving whale. "While this event is unfortunate, whale strandings are a natural phenomenon," department spokesman Dave Winterburn tells AFP, and it's an all-too-common one, too, at Farewell Spit. There have more than 10 mass strandings there over the past 15 years, including one in 2017 that left nearly 700 whales deposited on the beach. About 250 of them died.

Pilot whales, which are the most common whales seen cruising around New Zealand, also seem to be the most likely ones to end up beached at Farewell Spit. It's not clear why, though some scientists speculate that the spit "creates a shallow seabed in the bay with extensive, [miles-wide] sand flats" that mess with the marine creatures' internal sonar navigation systems. Winterburn tells the BBC there doesn't seem to be much anyone can do at the moment, however, as any possible remedies, such as a water barrier, would be "completely impractical." (Read more pilot whale stories.)

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