Conservation workers and volunteers used a high tide yesterday 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.
Within a couple hours of sending the whales out to sea, about 10 of them headed back into shallow water about four kilometers south of the original site "with others milling offshore," marine researcher Andrew Baxter said.
"This isn't unheard of, occasionally we do get restrandings ... and we prepare for this," he told National Radio.
About 20 rescuers formed a human chain to shepherd the mammals back toward open water and were using a boat to try to keep the whales from rebeaching as the tide retreated.
"This was certainly a lot easier than this morning's (rescue) because they hadn't completely grounded, although some of them had to be lifted across the mud," rescuer Craig Potton told Radio New Zealand.
"You grab it by the nose, just like elephants in Nepal, you manhandle them and push them. You just push like hell to make it go out, in the final analysis - you don't muck around," he said.
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 whales and some calves.
The whales had beached in two groups, one of 60 whales near the top of the beach and another of 63 whales further out.
Conservation Department spokeswoman Trish Grant said at least 15 whales had died on the beach during the 24-hour ordeal, but said there had been "a wonderful effort" by some 300 volunteers and department workers to save the rest.
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 conservation staff would monitor the beach through today to ensure the pod makes 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.
Whale experts have been unable to explain why the mammals apparently swim into dangerously shallow waters.