The two whales found dead on a Northland beach today are so rare their species has only ever been seen at sea 30 times.
Taupō Bay locals notified the Department of Conservation this morning after finding the whales, a female about 5m long and a calf measuring 2m. They were about 500m apart with the adult at the mid-point of the bay and the calf at the southern end.
The marine mammals, thought to be pygmy right whales, drew a steady stream of curious locals.
Among them were Taupō Bay man Steve Herk and his daughters Prairie, 15, and Aurora, 13, who had planned to collect tuatua but found a whale instead. Prairie said she was surprised and saddened by their find.
She had seen plenty of dolphins in the bay and the odd sea turtle but this was her first whale. She was heading home afterwards to look it up and try to work out what species it was.
DoC marine ranger Cat Peters, of Russell, said pygmy right whales were ''super rare'' and had only been seen at sea about 30 times before.
They were mostly found in Antarctic waters — Taupō Bay was near the northern limit of their range — and they were a pelagic, or migratory, species.
''Beyond that there's little we know,'' she said.
Their cause of death was not known and they had no obvious signs of trauma. The adult's baleen was broken but that could have happened when it washed up.
Both had circular bite marks left by cookie-cutter sharks but those were not lethal, Peters said.
Morgan Moses, of local hapū Ngāti Rua, said it was likely the whales would be carried out on the tide overnight. If they were still on the beach tomorrow they would be buried in dunes inland.
Their bones could be used in future as a taonga and as a learning opportunity for youth, he said.
Peters was accompanied by a marine mammal specialist from the Bay of Islands-based Tangaroa Research Institute and two French interns.
The discovery of the rare pygmy right whales was not the only unusual marine mammal sighting in Northland in recent days.
On Friday members of the Houhora Big Game and Sports Fishing Club spotted a white humpback breaching off Mt Camel, about 50km north of Kaitaia, and managed to capture the spectacle on a cellphone.
The whale is though to be an individual called Migaloo which was seen a few days earlier in the Bay of Plenty and is likely to be on its way to the Queensland coast.
Migaloo's whiteness is so unusual the whale has its own Instagram feed and a Facebook page with more than 16,000 likes.
Peters said an unusually high number of whale sightings this year was due to warmer sea temperatures and easterly winds bringing the whale's food closer to shore.
The higher than average sea temperatures had also triggered the die-off of penguins that occurred earlier this year.