Another pilot whale has died overnight, bringing the total number to have perished in a mass stranding on Karikari Beach to 44.

A rescue operation is underway to save 14 survivors.

A team of more than 70 volunteers from the Department of Conservation (DOC) in Kaitaia, Project Jonah and Far North Whale Rescue were back at the scene at first light today. Volunteers from the local community and local iwi, Ngati Kahu, were also on hand to help.

A skeleton crew stayed to monitor them overnight, Mike Davies DOC acting area manager said.

He said the plan was to remove the remaining whales across about 1km of road by transporter and refloat them in Matai Bay.

It would not be necessary to tranquilise the whales, as they were already in quite a docile state.

"That will be the challenge this morning, anyway. We'll have to use transporters and diggers to lift them in a cradle. It has been done previously, and we're not transporting them very far," he said.

"Part of the reason for transporting them is the hope that the sea conditions will be easier on that side, because it's a bit more sheltered," he said.

The move will begin shortly after 9am.

At this stage the plan is to release the whales back out to sea later on this afternoon.

In the meantime, volunteers will work with the whales to keep them damp and cool, and re-orientate them back into the water.

DOC received a call about 10.30am yesterday advising of the mass stranding.

Carolyn Smith, community relations programme manager for the DOC in Kaitaia, said the whales had probably stranded overnight Thursday, and that was why so many perished before being discovered.

About 40 people were involved in yesterday's rescue operation, including at least 20 DOC staff.

Far North Whale Rescue, which has a team of trained volunteers, worked with DOC, but the refloat was unsuccessful.

Once the whales were moved today, they would be positioned to face out to sea and they then needed to be held in the water for at least half an hour to allow them to re-orientate themselves, before being released to swim back out to sea, Mr Davies said.

At up to 1500kg each in weight, it takes at least five people to work with each animal.

Ms Smith said that because of the delicate physiology of marine mammals, and the risks associated with refloating them, it was important the teams working with them were adequately trained.

"We're very grateful to the Far North Whale Rescue, who run free training workshops for people who want to be involved in whale strandings," Ms Smith said.

The next task facing staff would be the disposal of the deceased whales.

DOC was working with local iwi, Ngati Kahu, on appropriate ways to do this.

Kimberly Muncaster, chief executive of Project Jonah, told NZPA the 15 surviving whales were in a "fairly poor condition".

She urged people not to rush down to the scene as it could make the rescue operation more difficult.

NZPA