Conservation workers and volunteers were racing against time Tuesday to try to save 123 pilot whales beached on New Zealand's South Island, officials said. At least three of the pod died before they could be shepherded back out to sea, they said. Department of Conservation area manager John Mason said workers had tracked the pod of whales since they were first seen early Tuesday apparently confused and milling around near the shore.
The first whale had stranded in the early afternoon and the rest of the pod of 4-5 meter (13-16 foot) long whales beached progressively on the shallow sandy shore. "It wasn't a great surprise to us when they began to strand when the tide turned and began to go out," he said.
About 100 local people had volunteered to try to keep the whales alive on the beach near Farewell Spit in the north of South Island, Mason said.
"We've got wet sheets and blankets over them and we're pouring water over those to keep the animals wet and cool. We've also got some pumps down there so we're going set up some sprinkler systems," he said.
The volunteers and conservationists, however, would have to leave the beach before it got dark, he said, leaving the whales to survive for several hours until high tide at 2:00 a.m. Wednesday (1300 GMT Tuesday).
"We're hoping that a number of these will refloat themselves," Mason said, adding there would be a second chance at another high tide later Wednesday.
There have been other mass strandings in the area, the last in 1998 when about the same number of whales had beached. "Past experience tells us that about 30 percent will refloat themselves tonight," Mason said, reports the AP. I.L.