Death of Pilot Whales in New Zealand

Over 400 whales have died after being stranded on New Zealand’s Pitt Island.

Key facts

  • While majority of the stranded pilot whales died naturally, the survivors were euthanized because of the threat of them being consumed by sharks as well as the logistical challenges in Pitts Island, which hosts less than 100 inhabitants.
  • Refloating these stranded whales is unsafe since dead whales on beaches or shallows are likely to attract sharks closer to the shore, posing risks to humans attempting to refloat the whales.
  • The whales got stranded on the Chatham Islands archipelago, which is situated some 840 km off the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. This archipelago has the Pitts Island and Chatham Island, both of which have little human presence.
  • The mass deaths of pilot whales occurred in Chatham Islands Archipelago because of whale beaching.
  • The Chatham Islands hosts just around 600 people. The archipelago is among the top three “stranding hotspots” in New Zealand.
  • In the year 1918, Chatham Islands witnessed the highest recorded stranding in New Zealand of about 1,000 pilot whales.

About whale beaching

The reason for whale beaching is unknown. Some speculate that it occurs because of the social nature of these marine mammals. The changes in electromagnetic fields in the region caused by solar flares or seismic activities are also cited as reasons behind whale beachings. Pilot whales use sonar to find prey and for orientation. Changes in electromagnetic field could lead them to lose their way and move away from the waters. Another reasons specific to the Pitts Island could be the tides and shape of the beaches. If whales or dolphins are caught in the waters, they are forced towards the shore and get stranded. Another research found that the presence of prey close to the shore also causes the stranding of pilot whales.

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