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Volunteers in New Zealand work to stop fresh whale stranding

Volunteers in New Zealand have managed to refloat about 100 surviving pilot whales after more than 400 of the sea animals were stranded earlier this week. However, the rescue effort is far from over.

About 100 beached whales who survived one of biggest whale strandings on record in New Zealand were refloated following a major volunteer effort involving 300 volunteers. But only a fraction of the pilot whales who had swum aground on Farewell Spit on the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island were successfully moved back into the sea.

A total of 416 whales beached this week - more than half of whom died before locals could help them the next morning. The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) said that as many as 300 may have perished in waters surrounded by Farewell Spit, which are known as "Golden Bay."

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Whales in peril

DOC ranger Kath Inwood said in a statement that it was too early to tell if the ones who had been rescued would eventually head out to sea to join other whales or head back to the beach. Many had swum aground again overnight.

Pilot whales, who can reach a length of 6 meters (20 feet), are a common sight in New Zealand's waters. They have suffered mass strandings before - including in Farewell Spit.

The spit's long coastline and sloping beaches make it difficult for whales to navigate away once they get too close, earning its sand banks the nickname "whale trap."

Human barrier

DOC Golden Bay operations manager Andrew Lamason told The Associated Press that improved weather conditions helped with the most recent rescue attempt.

Neuseeland Hunderte Wale am Strand verendet (Reuters/A. Phelps )

The majority of the beached animals did not survive

He said all the surviving whales had been refloated and that about 100 volunteers had formed a human chain in the sea to prevent them from beaching again, standing neck-deep in wet suits to brave the cold waters.

"There's a chance some might come back onto the beach," he said, adding that volunteers had also been warned about the possibility of stingrays and sharks after one of the dead whales appeared to have bite marks consistent with those from a shark.

The rescue effort was later paused, with officials saying they were beginning to turn their attention to the grim task of disposing of hundreds of whale carcasses.

ss/gsw (AP, dpa)

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