It was a nervous wait overnight for conservation staff who were to patrol Ruakākā Beach early this morning following the stranding and death of four pilot whales.
The four adult pilot whales, part of a pod of 30, beached and were found by joggers about 2km south of the Ruakākā Surf Lifesaving club about 6.30am yesterday.Three were dead but one was still fighting for survival when they were discovered.
Despite community members rallying quickly, by righting the whale and keeping it wet and calm it too died shortly before 7.30am.
The pod remained in the area for a couple of hours threatening to come ashore at high tide about 10am.
Doctor Cat Peters, a marine mammal ranger based in the Bay of Islands, was co-ordinating the operation and was nervously watching the pod which swam as close as 200m to the shore in water just 10m deep.
A spotter plane and two boats were used to follow the pod until it was confirmed they had moved off the Ruakākā shoreline leaving their deceased pod members behind.
Peters said a sweep of the beach would be done todayand hopefully the pod had remained at sea. It was unclear why they had stranded.
"It's always an emotional time for people when whales strand like this. I think everyone here can be proud that they have done all that we can for them and treated them with respect," Peters said.
Late yesterday Ingrid Visser, of the Orca Research Trust, had tracked the pod of 26 from Ruakākā south towards Mangawhai Heads where she said they stopped, milled about, and made a beeline towards the shore.
"It's nerve-wracking following them. Hopefully, they continue to head offshore," Visser said.
Fortunately, they headed offshore again and were headed towards Little Barrier Island.
However, a pod of about 30 offshore bottlenose dolphins had joined the pod and they had split into two groups.
"It's not unusual for the dolphins and whales to mix like this."
Visser said there were a number of young whales, one of which may have been born during the incident.
Kaumātua Pera Mackie, of local hapū Patuharakeke, carried out a karakia for the whales and thanked everyone who had turned up on the beach willing to help.
"Don't feel downhearted...they are still here with us," he told the crowd that had gathered.
"The people who arrived here were here to support the kaupapa to try and get them back out to sea. It shows you the love of the people for Tangaroa. The good thing about it was not only local iwi but Māori and Pākehā gathered here to support the kaupapa."
He said the whales would be buried whole in sand dunes near where the stranding happened.
Janine Ayerst-Parore, of Ruakākā, rushed around the house gathering up buckets and blankets when she heard about the stranding.
"I was halfway through making the school lunches and I just grabbed the kids and came down to the beach."
She was in the water on arrival helping to turn the whales out to sea so they stayed connected with their pod.
"I could see the other whales out in the water and I told them to go ... I told them Patuharekeke had this and that they could go," she said.
She said the death of the whales had left her overwhelmed and spiritually broken.
"I'm just so sad for them."
It was Ruakākā resident Maree Wright and her friend Tineke Visser who discovered the stranded whales while on their morning run.
"The smallest one was rolling around in the waves and the others were further up the beach."
With no phone on her, she jogged home and alerted her husband Andrew, a member of the lifesaving club, who rallied some members and went to the whales with buckets and towels. They managed to right the whale that remained alive to keep its blowhole out of the water but it did not survive.
It is not the first time Wright has discovered dead whales on her morning run having seen two other previous strandings within the same stretch of beach.
In November 2006 some 37 whales died - the biggest up to 4m long, the youngest just over a metre - but about 40 more were turned back to sea and headed toward the Hen and Chickens Islands.
And in March 2016 local iwi gave permission for marine experts to examine three rare whales that stranded and died on the same stretch of beach.
The Gray's beaked whales were discovered on Ruakākā Beach, about 2km south of the Ruakākā Surf Lifesaving Club, by a member of the public at high tide.
The two whales lay dead 10m apart while the third was discovered about 100m north. All were male, measured between 4.5m and 5m long and each weighed at least one tonne.
If you see whales in trouble please call 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).