A sperm whale stranded at Coopers Beach in the Far North has died.

A rescue operation was launched last night to save the 10m whale, which was about 20m offshore at the eastern end of the beach and being dragged closer to the shore by the incoming tide.

Department of Conservation ranger William Macrae said it was either a female or a juvenile male. Females grow to about 12m, males to 18m.

Rescuers tried to herd it out with a net strung between two boats.

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The whale was too heavy to drag out to sea but it was hoped that the boats could keep the netting taut and stop it being washed any closer to shore. Then, as the tide rose, it had been hoped it might be able to free itself and swim away.

The technique has been used successfully in Tasmania.

One of the complications with yesterday's rescue was the size and power of the whale, especially its tail _ making it dangerous for rescuers to get too close. They also had to deal with heavy rain and wind gusts as high tide approached about 7pm.

In August last year, 58 pilot whales stranded at Doubtless Bay's Karikari Beach, of which 13 were eventually refloated at Maitai Bay on the other side of the peninsula. Nine survived. The following month, more than 70 pilot whales stranded at Spirits Bay, near Cape Reinga.