A specialist team of Northland whale rescuers - and experience gained in a series of mass strandings in the Far North - helped save more than 60 pilot whales beached in Golden Bay.
Last Friday, 198 whales became stranded at Farewell Spit, at the northern tip of the South Island. Department of Conservation staff, Project Jonah volunteers and at least 300 tourists and locals descended on the beach in a bid to refloat the animals.
However, more than half restranded, many of them dying on the beach that night.
A team from Northland-based Whale Rescue joined the effort with Opua's Jo "Floppy" Halliday arriving at 2am on Saturday, weighed down with lifting mats and pontoons, and Reece Hesketh directing logistics from the Bay of Islands.
More members arrived from Auckland and Wellington while the group's advisor, Steve Whitehouse, happened to be holidaying in nearby Picton at the time.
Ms Halliday was shocked by the condition of the 69 surviving whales at first light on Saturday. In the strandings at Northland's Karikari Beach and Spirits Bay in 2010, volunteers were able to keep the whales cool and wet overnight.
However, DoC would not allow people to stay overnight due to safety concerns stemming from the terrain at Farewell Spit.
By morning the animals were stressed, overheated and suffering wind burn.
With the surrounding wetland reserve making it impossible to use heavy machinery, rescuers had to rely on people power to move the whales.
The Whale Rescue team used its lifting mats to haul the four largest survivors, up to 6m long and weighing up to 4 tonnes, back into the tide.
They also instructed other volunteers to rock the refloated whales from side to side before release, a trick that helped the animals regain their equilibrium and reduced their chances of restranding.
In the end, 67 of the 69 whales still alive at dawn on Saturday made it back out to sea.
"So I'm kind of proud of our team," Ms Halliday said.
Applying the techniques learned in Northland rescues could help counter some of the poor survival rates in South Island strandings, she said.
Whale Rescue was founded in 2012 as a "swat team" able to respond at short notice to strandings around the country.
Tutukaka orca expert Ingrid Visser is a founder member but she is currently on a ship in Antarctic waters.