Rescuers were engaged in a heartbreaking race against time on Friday to save the lives of a large group of whales, after more than 400 of the animals swam aground along a remote beach in New Zealand.
About 275 of the pilot whales were already dead when Cheree Morrison and two colleagues found them on Farewell Spit at the tip of the South Island. Within hours, hundreds of farmers, tourists and teenagers engaged in a group effort to keep the surviving 140 or so whales alive in one of the worst whale strandings in the nation’s history.
Morrison, a magazine writer and editor, stumbled upon the whales after taking a pre-dawn trip with a photographer and a guide to capture the red glow of the sunrise.
“You could hear the sounds of splashing, of blowholes being cleared, of sighing,” she said. “The young ones were the worst. Crying is the only way to describe it.”
Getting the large animals back out to sea proved to be a major challenge. As many as half of the 100 refloated whales managed to strand themselves again, the New Zealand Herald reported.
The adult and baby whale carcasses were strewn three or four deep in places for hundreds of yards, often rolled over on the sand with their tail fins still up in the air.
Morrison’s group alerted officials, and volunteers soon began arriving in wetsuits and carrying buckets. Dressed in her jeans and sandshoes, Morrison waded into the water and did what she could to try to maneuver the surviving whales upright so they could breathe more easily.