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Rescuers cautiously optimistic that New Zealand whale crisis is over

After more than 650 whales stranded on Farewell Spit since Friday, conservation officials are optimistic that the crisis is over. Hundreds of volunteers worked tirelessly to save as many animals as possible.

A representative from the Department of Conservation (DOC) said on Sunday he was cautiously optimistic that a string of whale strandings on New Zealand's shores was over.

"We've pulled our boats out of the water," regional conservation manager Andrew Lamason told news agency AFP.

The crisis started on Friday, when 416 pilot whales were found on Farewell Spit, a 26-kilometer (16 miles) long tongue of land that reaches into the Tasman Sea like a hook.

Neuseeland | weitere Wale in Farewell Spit gestrandet (Getty Images/AFP/M. Melville)

Volunteers doused the stranded animals with water

"You could hear the sounds of splashing, of blowholes being cleared, of sighing," said Cheree Morrison, who discovered the whales on Friday. "The young ones were the worst. Crying is the only way to describe it." 

On Saturday, a group of 240 mammals stranded three kilometers from the Friday beaching, but managed to refloat themselves overnight. In total, more than 650 pilot whales stranded at beaches in the past three days.

Volunteer turnout

Hundreds of volunteers, from farmers to tourists, came to help the stranded ocean mammals. They doused the whales with buckets of water to keep them cool, refloated animals during high tide and formed human chains across the beach to prevent further strandings.

Neuseeland | weitere Wale in Farewell Spit gestrandet (Getty Images/AFP/M. Melville)

Tourists and locals came out in order to help the stranded mammals on Saturday

"It was an excellent public response," DOC spokesperson Herb Christophers said. "People seem to have an emotional attachment to marine mammals. They've been singing songs to them, giving them specific names, treating them as kindred spirits."

Despite the efforts of the helpers, about 350 whales died. Most of them were among the animals found on Friday and already dead when they were discovered. Twenty animals were euthanized. Pathologists are carrying out necropsies on some of the deceased whales to determine what might have caused the mass stranding. There are different theories as to why whales travel too far inshore, from chasing prey to escaping a predator.

Neuseeland | weitere Wale in Farewell Spit gestrandet (Getty Images/AFP/M. Melville)

Pilot whales are a common sight off New Zealand

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of whale beachings. Friday night's stranding marked the third-biggest in recorded history. The largest was in 1918, when about 1,000 pilot whales came ashore on the Chatham Islands, situated several hundreds of kilometers east from the two main islands. In 1985, about 450 whales stranded near Auckland in the north of the country. 

mb/tj (AFP, AP, dpa)

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