Aerial footage shows mass pilot whale stranding on Stewart Island

The whales were spotted by hikers on Saturday. Image NZ Department of Conservation

The whales were spotted by hikers on Saturday. Image NZ Department of Conservation

As many as 145 pilot whales died on a New Zealand island this weekend after they were left stranded on a beach.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) said two pods of pilot whales were stranded on a beach on Stewart Island, 30 km (20 miles) south of New Zealand's South Island.

The Department of Conservation (DoC) was contacted and later arrived at the scene to discover around half of the 140 or so whales had died.

Around half the whales had died by the time they were discovered, and the remaining whales had to be euthanised, Doc Rakiura Operations Manager Ren Leppens said.

The DOC made a decision to euthanize the remaining whales, DOC manager Ren Leppens said. He described the decision as "heart-breaking".

Although marine mammal strandings are "relatively common" in New Zealand, with around 80-85 incidents a year, they are mostly of single animals, according to the DOC.

Over the weekend, more whales lost their lives on New Zealand beaches, including a female pygmy sperm found on Ohiwa and a 15-metre male whale. The remote location and lack of nearby personnel meant successfully refloating the whales was highly unlikely.

However, conservation workers are hoping to save some of the eight pygmy killer whales that remained stranded Monday at the other end of the country in an unrelated event.

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Awarua Rūnanga Dean Whaanga said it was a sad event, especially given the large number.

Grover said there was usually at least one "significant" mass stranding a year.

Stewart Island's population is extremely low, even in the peak of summer, meaning there are "very few people to keep an eye on the shore".

Mass strandings are much rarer.

The largest is thought to have taken place in 1918, when approximately 1,000 whales stranded themselves on Chatham Islands.

Several factors can cause strandings, such as the whales trying to escape predators, falling ill or navigating incorrectly.

DOC has notified local Ngāi Tahu iwi and is working together on next steps.

However, conservation officials note that these should not be confused with natural whale traps, such as the one at Farewell Spit, where whale strandings have been noted for centuries.

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