477 whales die in New Zealand after ‘heartbreaking’ strandings on remote beaches

Dead pilot whales on a beach
Dead pilot whales litter Tupuangi Beach in the Chatham Islands, about 500 miles east of New Zealand’s main islands.
(Tamzin Henderson / Associated Press)

Some 477 pilot whales have died after stranding themselves on two remote New Zealand beaches over recent days, officials say.

None of the stranded whales could be refloated and all either died naturally or were euthanized in a “heartbreaking” loss, said Daren Grover, the general manager of Project Jonah, a nonprofit group that helps rescue whales.

The whales beached themselves on the Chatham Islands, which are home to about 600 people and lie about 500 miles east of New Zealand’s main islands.


The Department of Conservation said 232 whales stranded themselves Friday at Tupuangi Beach and another 245 at Waihere Bay on Monday.

The deaths come two weeks after about 200 pilot whales died in Australia after stranding themselves on a remote Tasmanian beach.

“These events are tough, challenging situations,” the Department of Conservation wrote in a Facebook post. “Although they are natural occurrences, they are still sad and difficult for those helping.”

The number of gray whale calves born last year was the lowest since 1994, when scientists started recording the data, according to a report Friday.

Oct. 7, 2022

Grover said the remote location and presence of sharks in the surrounding waters meant they couldn’t mobilize volunteers to try to refloat the whales as they have in past stranding events.

“We do not actively refloat whales on the Chatham Islands due to the risk of shark attack to humans and the whales themselves, so euthanasia was the kindest option,” said Dave Lundquist, a technical marine advisor for the conservation department.


Mass strandings of pilot whales are reasonably common in New Zealand, especially during the summer months. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes the whales to strand, although it appears that their location systems can get confused by gently sloping sandy beaches.

Grover said there is a lot of food for the whales around the Chatham Islands, and as they swim closer to land, they would quickly find themselves going from very deep to shallow water.

Ships are a major risk to whales worldwide. Researchers are only beginning to understand the extent of death caused by ocean-traveling vessels.

Aug. 5, 2021

“They rely on their echo-location and yet it doesn’t tell them that they are running out of water,” Grover said. “They come closer and closer to shore and become disoriented. The tide can then drop from below them, and before they know it, they’re stranded on the beach.”

Because of the remote location of the beaches, the whale carcasses won’t be buried or towed out to sea, as is often the case, but instead will be left to decompose, Grover said.

“Nature is a great recycler, and all the energy stored within the bodies of all the whales will be returned to nature quite quickly,” he said.