Scientists have an imprecise understanding of the obscure phenomenon of mass whale strandings, when large numbers of the marine mammals suddenly beach themselves – often their final acts.
There are, of course, many reasons a whale would find itself on a beach: illness or injury that leaves them at the mercy of ocean currents and strong waves; a sudden dart into shallow water to escape a predator or pursue prey; even echolocation errors or confusion over quickly falling tides, which can doom them.
But such strandings are mostly solo occurrences; they usually do not involve scores of whales.
A hiker’s grim discovery in New Zealand’s Mason Bay over the weekend remains a heartbreaking mystery.
There, lying in a jagged line on the remote beach, were more than 140 immobile animals: two full pods of pilot whales, dead or dying in the sun.
Because of the remote location – Mason Bay is on New Zealand’s southernmost island, which has a population of fewer than 400 – authorities said they weren’t able to gather enough people to help the whales get back into the Pacific Ocean in time.
That left just one option: help the whales die.
„Sadly, the likelihood of being able to successfully re-float the remaining whales was extremely low,“ Ren Leppens, the Rakiura operations manager for the New Zealand Department of Conservation, said in a statement.