It was a sombre way to spend the final day of 2017 - moving a large sperm whale which washed up on a northern Hawke's Bay beach to its final resting place.

Crowds of onlookers gathered at Mahia Beach to witness the final journey of the 16m-long whale, which washed up on Friday night, and died from natural causes about 8am on Saturday.

Early yesterday morning work began to move the whale's body - which was about 50m offshore - on to the beach for burial.

Department of Conservation biodiversity ranger Jamie Quirk said work began about 6.30am, with several diggers working in unison to roll the whale up the beach.


Mr Quirk said it was quite difficult to move the carcass, which weighed about 40 tons and took more than four hours to shift halfway up the popular beach.

As well as its weight, the time of year meant it had been quite hard to find the needed machinery to move the whale with ease. It was finally brought above the high-tide mark after another digger was found.

Ngati Rongomaiwahine kaumatua Pera Edwards said local iwi were able to begin removing the whale's jaw and teeth about midday.

These would be used for cultural purposes - whales are sacred to Maori and for centuries their teeth and bones have been used by Maori for carving. Historically the whale's oil and meat were also used.

There was a cordon around the area while the carcass was brought onshore, but locals and holidaymakers flooded back into the area to watch local iwi perform a karakia before the removal.

One onlooker was Lisa Grant, who said the process of removing the whale's body parts and burying it had taken "a very long time".

She said people seemed intrigued by the process. Although the smell had driven some away, others stayed to watch the diggers create a whale-sized hole in the sand dunes, and the burial.

Upon closer examination of the whale, it was found to be a male about 16.1m long. It's teeth were "very worn", and it was quite skinny, Mr Quirk said.

This showed the mammal was likely to be quite old, and "at the end of its life cycle".

Whales were known to wash up in the area once every five years or so, but the size of the mammal had made it peculiar and had attracted dozens to see the carcass when it was discovered.

At the weekend witness Roger Foley, who was staying at the holiday park across the road from the beach with his wife, said he first saw the animal about 7am and a crowd had already gathered around the creature.

It had been stormy in the area last night, Foley told NZME, with "very heavy seas" and high winds.

Mr Quirk said the area was known for beachings, though scientists weren't completely sure why.

In February, a pygmy sperm whale stranded itself on Mahia Beach. It was rescued by holiday-makers who refloated it and pushed it out to sea.

If people saw a stranded whale they should call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).