A pod of dolphins in danger of becoming stranded on Doubtless Bay's Tokerau Beach were ushered back out to sea by local residents.

About 20 common dolphins were found floundering in shallows at the northern end of the beach on Wednesday afternoon.

While the animals did not appear distressed, the tide was going out, putting them at risk of stranding.

Tokerau Beach resident Glenys Urlich said the dolphins seemed to be "milling around in the shallows" and looked reluctant to return to deeper water.

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A large group of locals kept them wet and upright - dolphins can drown from water entering their blowholes if they tip on to their sides - and tried to herd them out to sea.

Eventually, locals got the pod together in slightly deeper water and they swam away of their own accord about 3.30pm, just before a rescue team arrived from the Department of Conservation's Kaitaia office.

Mrs Urlich said Tokerau Beach had had a run of whale strandings some years ago so locals were well versed in marine mammal rescues.

Dolphin expert Jo "Floppy" Halliday, of Opua, said she knew of several similar incidents around the Far North in recent years.

The cause was not clear but it was possible they were trying to avoid predators; the most likely explanation was that they were hunting for pilchards or mackerel in the shallows.

On the same day she saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins feeding on pilchards in the shallows off Russell's Long Beach.