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Rescuers Save Part of Whale Pod in N.Z.

January 8, 2003

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) _ Rescuers pushing and dragging whales managed to refloat 39 members of a beached pod during high tide Wednesday as dozens of other whales lay dead on a remote island off southern New Zealand, officials said.

Locals joined conservation specialists in the race to rescue surviving members of a 159-strong pod of pilot whales stranded on Stewart Island, 25 miles off the south coast of South Island. Rescuers poured seawater over the beached mammals to protect them from the afternoon heat.

By nightfall, the 39 whales had moved about 1 1/2 miles out into open sea and were heading south away from the stranding site on a beach called The Neck in Paterson’s Inlet. It is a few miles from the island’s only settlement of Oban.

``That was a very good result,″ Department of Conservation southern islands area manager Greg Lind told The Associated Press.

``The 39 we got off were the only ones alive when the stranded pod was found around midday,″ he added. ``Overseas, such refloat efforts are rarely successful.″

Several small boats herded the refloated whales away from the beach and headed them toward open water.

Some 80 people, including locals, visitors and tourists, worked throughout the hot afternoon, pouring cooling sea water on the beached mammals.

Volunteer helper Michaela Ballard, of Christchurch, New Zealand, said the rescue effort at times felt like a lost cause.

``You try and help them all you can. At least there’s a chance rather than leaving them to die,″ she said.

Lind said a spotter plane would fly over the area at first light to check the survivors had not returned to the beach, and had continued to swim away from the inlet.

The stranded whales had likely been on the beach about 18 hours before they were spotted.

The dead whale carcasses would be left to rot on the beach, Lind said.

Scientists don’t know why whales beach themselves.

Stewart Island’s worst whale grounding was in 1998 when 320 of the mammals swam ashore on remote Doughboy Bay and had to be put down.

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