Whale rescue volunteers sang to and even named many of the pilot whales stranded on Farewell Spit near Nelson.

More than 400 whales beached themselves in a mass stranding at the sandspit at the northern end of Golden Bay on Thursday night.

About 300 died but the surviving 100 were successfully refloated at high tide about lunchtime today.

Volunteers frantically attempt to bring whales on their sides upright. Photo / Tim Cuff
Volunteers frantically attempt to bring whales on their sides upright. Photo / Tim Cuff

At present a human chain of 100 volunteers is preventing the surviving whales and another pod of about 200 from returning to shore.

Advertisement

Department of Conservation staff and whale rescue group Project Jonah, aided by 500 volunteers, tended to the beached whales all day Friday and Saturday morning.

DoC spokesman Herb Christophers said many volunteers felt a connection with the whales they were caring for as the mammals whistled and clicked in communication.

"[The volunteers are] just ordinary folk. Just Mum and Dad and the kids. People get very involved with whale strandings. People have an affinity with whales," Christophers said.

"Some people were naming the whales. Others are singing to the whales. The people have been sitting there comforting the whales."

Volunteers keep the whales watered as the sun sets last night. Photo / Tim Cuff
Volunteers keep the whales watered as the sun sets last night. Photo / Tim Cuff

The bonds developed as volunteers assigned to whales spent hours watering them, covering the giant animals - some of whom stretched 5m long weighed over half a tonne - with wet towels to prevent blistering in the sun.

Photographer and Project Jonah marine mammal medic Tim Cuff said he captured many emotional scenes throughout the ordeal.

Cuff said when volunteers left the whales for the night on Friday many of them were upset.

"One German girl [Lea Stubbe] didn't really want to leave her whale. She was crying and had her hand on it. She was just kind of connecting with it."

Cuff said the dedication of volunteers, many of whom were young foreign tourists, was inspiring.

"It's always a pretty heart-wrenching scene. It's a pretty sad scene up on the beach where there's a long line of dead whales. The volunteers worked really hard."

However he said volunteers were buoyant yesterday, particularly as the weather was cloudy which made it easier to care for the whales.

The mass pilot whale stranding at Farewell Spit, Golden Bay. Photo / Tim Cuff
The mass pilot whale stranding at Farewell Spit, Golden Bay. Photo / Tim Cuff

Human chain of 100 volunteers

At the 11.30am high tide on Saturday all 100 of the remaining "odd pod" as the whales had become known, were successfully refloated.

DoC Nelson ranger Kath Inwood said there was feeling of elation among volunteers over the successful refloat however only time would tell if the whales would return to shore when the tide goes out around 3pm.

At the same time as the refloat a pod of 200 whales began swimming toward the shore and met the 100 survivors. Inwood said they were "mingling".

A human chain of 100 volunteers wearing wetsuits was in the water to prevent the pods returning to shore.

DOC praised the efforts of all the volunteers and said there may be a re-call if another stranding occurred.

Meanwhile, the 300 dead whale carcasses would not be moved while any live whales were on the beach.

Inwood said ideally the bodies would be tethered and towed out to sea but because of the numbers that may not be practical.

If not the whales would be left to decompose in the sand dunes.

Local iwi representatives Mairangi Reiher and Shane Graham provided a karakia over the dead whales.

The story so far

• Thursday night:

400-plus pilot whales beach themselves at Farewell Spit, at the northern end of Golden Bay near Nelson.

• Friday morning: The whales are discovered; 300 have died and 100 are cared for by 500 volunteers organised by Department of Conservation and Project Jonah.

• Friday: A small number of the whales are refloated while volunteers begin to become emotionally attached to the remaining surviving animals.

• Friday night: Whales are left alone on the beach and it's hoped a high tide will refloat some.

• Saturday morning: 300 volunteers turn out for a mass refloating of the whales on an 11.30am high tide. The refloat is successful.

• Saturday lunch time: A human chain of 100 volunteers stand in the water up to their necks to prevent the pod and another one with 200 whales from returning to shore.

Late afternoon on Friday on Farewell Spit. Photo / Tim Cuff
Late afternoon on Friday on Farewell Spit. Photo / Tim Cuff

Previous strandings in the area

2011:

Up to 80 whales beach at Farewell Spit.

Feb 2015: 200 whales stranded in the exact same location as today.

Feb 2017: 416 whales stranded at Farewell Spit in one of the country's worst mass strandings.