Pilot whales refloated from New Zealand beach

Conservation workers and volunteers used a high tide Wednesday to refloat about 110 pilot whales from a beach where they became stranded a day earlier on New Zealand's South Island. At least 15 others died, a conservation official said. Volunteers in the rescue included tourists from as far afield as China and Germany, many of whom had never seen whales before. Some of them were reminded of the New Zealand-made film "Whale Rider" about rescuing a stranded whale. "It's just like 'Whale Rider' but probably without the happy ending," tourist Rebecca Archibald from Somerset, England said, referring to the whales that died. Archibald was helping to wet down a whale that was wrapped in a wet blanket to keep it cool.

The first whale beached itself early afternoon Tuesday on the Farewell Spit sands in the northern part of the island and was followed by the rest of the pod of 3-to-5-meter-long (10-to-16-foot-long) whales and some calves.

"They're several kilometers from the shore ... with three boats guiding them to open water," Department of Conservation spokeswoman Trish Grant told The Associated Press by cell phone from the beach. "It's early times yet as to whether they make it out to sea or whether they turn back and restrand," she said, adding it had been "a wonderful effort" by some 300 volunteers and department workers. The whales had beached in two groups, one of 60 whales near the top of the beach and another of 63 whales further out. Grant said at least 15 whales had died on the beach during the 24-hour ordeal. The surviving whales, including some young calves, "are not in too bad shape really, considering their stressful time," she said.

"It is quite a good outcome," Grant said, adding conservation staff would check the beach later Wednesday and at first light Thursday to ensure the pod had made it safely back to open waters.

New Zealand has several mass whale strandings around its coast line each summer. The last time that a group of whales beached themselves in the Farewell Spit area was in 1998 when about the same number of whales were refloated, reports the AP. I.L.

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