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Hundreds of whales dead in mass stranding in New Zealand

A whale stranding ranked as one of New Zealand's worst has drawn volunteer rescuers to the South Island's Farewell Spit. They've helped refloat 100 pilot whales, but as many as 300 were found dead.

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Whales in peril

Volunteers and whale experts hoped high tide on Friday would enable 100 surviving pilot whales to escape the notorious sand spit without re-beaching.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) local manager Andrew Lamason said rescuers were preparing themselves mentally for the "possibility that we may have a re-strand this afternoon."

The pod of whales was first spotted swimming close to shore by a DOC ranger on Thursday evening.

Lamason told Radio New Zealand that the whales were just milling around offshore instead of heading out into the open Tasman Sea off Nelson province.

The whale charity Project Jonah said scores of volunteers turned up with wetsuits to stay warm. Road access was difficult along the curved 32-kilometer (19-mile) spit.

New Zealand's online news chain Stuff via its regional newspaper "Nelson Mail" said Thursday night's stranding was New Zealand's third worst on record.

In 1918, a thousand whales stranded on the Chatham Islands far to the east of mainland New Zealand. In 1985 about 450 whales stranded in the Auckland area.

The spit was the scene of a major stranding in 2015.

Pilot whales, which can reach a length of six meters (20 foot), are a common species in New Zealand waters.

ipj/gsw (AP, dpa)

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