500 whales dead in unusual mass strandings that have left scientists baffled

After the heartbreaking deaths of over 200 pilot whales in a mass-stranding less than a week ago, another 240 of the creatures have died on a Pacific island beach.

Pilot whales normally travel in social groups, or “pods” of around 20, but can occasionally be seen in “super pods” of over 200.

In this week’s tragic case two super-pods of pilot whales were beached on neighbouring islands in the remote Chatham Islands chain.

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“This is one of the larger events for mass strandings in New Zealand,” said a statement from wildlife charity Project Jonah. “While we experience large mass strandings at Farewell Spit, these events average 70-80 whales”.

Many of the animals had already died when they were found and the survivors were euthanised because they could not safely be reflected, according to a statement from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.

Dave Lundquist, a marine technical adviser at New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, told reporters that a technical team had assessed the stranded whales and the decision was made to euthanise them.

“This decision is never taken lightly, but in cases like this it is the kindest option,” he said.

He explained that trying to re-float the injured whales could lead to an increased risk of shark attack to both whales and humans.

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The waters in the region are known to be swarming with great white sharks, Dave said, making it much too dangerous for rescuers to guide the animals back into deeper water.

Project Jonah's Daren Grover added: “There simply aren’t the networks of people or the availability of people to be able to attend any refloat of any surviving whales out there. There’s a population of less than 40 people.

“It’s incredibly remote – one of the smallest self-contained populations on the planet. So the information of 250 whales stranding on their shores there, that’s a tragedy almost beyond imagination.”

Pilot whales are known to be particularly vulnerable to mass stranding, and it’s believed the sophisticated echo location sense that they use for navigation could be scrambled by noise pollution from shipping.

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The earlier stranding event came just a day after at least 14 sperm whales died after washing up on the shore of a remote island off the northern tip of Tasmania.

Wildlife scientist Vanessa Pirotta told the BBC the similarities between this stranding and the one yesterday are "unusual" and concerning.

"We simply do not know why this happens," she told ABC News after the September 20 stranding. "That's the million-dollar question every time this kind of event happens."


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