Over 100 whales dead after washing up on New Zealand beach

Story highlights

  • 198 pilot whales stranded on Farewell Spit on New Zealand's South Island
  • People managed to refloat some of the whales, but they came back to land
  • The race is on to save 60 surviving whales by getting them back in the water

(CNN)Scores of whales stranded on a remote New Zealand beach got back in the water, only to return to land -- leaving more than 100 of them dead and conservationists racing to save those clinging to life.

They are among the 198 pilot whales that got stuck Friday on Farewell Spit, a thin claw of land that reaches out into the sea from the northern tip of New Zealand's South Island. The spit forms the top of Golden Bay, an area where whales get stranded frequently because of its protruding coastline, gently sloping beaches and system of currents.
    When it first happened, conservationists -- 140 trained volunteers in the Golden Bay area as well as experts from New Zealand's Department of Conservation -- rushed to water down the giant mammals, cover them and ideally refloat them back into the water.
    "Refloating stranded whales is a difficult and potentially dangerous job," Andrew Lamason, the department's services manager for Golden Bay, said Friday.
    Thankfully, workers on the scene until about 8 p.m. Friday (2 a.m. ET) were successful in getting the whales back into the open water -- albeit not before at least 24 whales had already died.
    But it didn't last.
    According to the Pacific island nation's Department of Conservation, "Unfortunately, the whales restranded, this time closer to the base of Farewell Spit.
    That spurred government staff, the trained volunteers and members of the public to head to this beach early Saturday. As of 11:30 a.m. (7:30 p.m. ET Friday), 103 whales were confirmed dead.
    "People are working with about 60 living whales," the New Zealand agency said then on its website. "... It is very cold and windy at the site."
    The stranding of large sea mammals -- something that usually happens naturally -- is nothing new to New Zealand, where the Department of Conservation responds, on average, to 85 such incidents a year.
    But most of the time, it's just one or two whales or dolphins. Mass strandings are rare, especially on the scale of what's happening around Golden Bay.