A small pod of rare pygmy killer whales have been euthanised despite attempts to rescue them after stranding repeatedly on a Northland beach.

It is only the second recorded stranding of pygmy killer whales reported in New Zealand.

The other was also in Northland when 10 stranded on Ninety Mile Beach in November 2018, with two having to be euthanised.

The only other report of the rare whale coming ashore was when a dead whale was found in December 2010, just north of Te Paki Stream.

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Despite its name, the pygmy killer whale is a small member of the oceanic dolphin family and is found primarily in deep waters throughout tropical and subtropical areas of the world.

In the latest stranding the pod of four adult males was first spotted on the beach just south of the Waipū River mouth on Monday about 5.30pm. Three were returned to the sea with one whale having to be euthanised.

Patuharakeke kaumatua Hori Parata says a karakia for one of the pygmy killer whales that had to be euthanised after stranding near the entrance to the Waipū River Mouth. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Patuharakeke kaumatua Hori Parata says a karakia for one of the pygmy killer whales that had to be euthanised after stranding near the entrance to the Waipū River Mouth. Photo / Michael Cunningham

But on Tuesday morning two of the whales had restranded and were very stressed despite efforts by Department of Conservation, Massey University scientists and members of Patu harekeke hapu to get them to a state where they could be returned to the sea.

Doctor Cat Peters, a marine mammal ranger for the Department of Conservation, was co-ordinating the operation and made the heartbreaking decision to put the whales down about 10.30am after talking with hapu representatives at the beach.

One of the whales had twisted its spine while stressed on the beach, an injury it would not have been able to survive if it was returned to the beach and the other, found inside the Waipu River Mouth entrance, was stressed and became unresponsive.

"It's not the outcome we were aiming for. But at the end of the day we can leave the beach and know the animals are not suffering any more," Peters said.

She was concerned about the welfare of the forth whale that had not been spotted despite sweeps of the shoreline by volunteers from the Waipū Surf Life Saving Club in their rescue boat yesterday morning.

"He will definitely be in poor condition and I would be very concerned if he came ashore again alive. We will be remaining on alert for him."

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Department of Conservation marine mammal ranger Dr Cat Peters is worried about the survival of the fourth whale. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Department of Conservation marine mammal ranger Dr Cat Peters is worried about the survival of the fourth whale. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Kaumatua Hori Parata and other members of Patuharakeke hapu sang a hymn and then recited a karakia for each of the whales, which both flapped their tales and gasped through their blow holes as this was being done.

A shower of rain then passed over the beach as the whales were shot and covered in a white sheet.

Ari Carrington, who tried to rescue the animals and was a member of Patuharakeke Taiao Unit, said the whales were a "tohu" or a sign for Maori.

"What's happening on the whenua is a sign of what is happening in the moana."

He said the whales would be taken to a place near Uretītī where they would be flensed and the blubber and bones used for rongoā (medicine) and carving.

Another of those involved in wetting down the whales until the final moments was Steve Johnson.

A rare pygmy killer whale stranding at the Waipū River Mouth. Photo / Michael Cunningham
A rare pygmy killer whale stranding at the Waipū River Mouth. Photo / Michael Cunningham

While he was from a farm and used to "life and death", seeing the whales euthanised was a very sad moment.

"You always think what if we had tried that little bit longer, could it have saved them?"

Meanwhile, Peters said the whales were quiet rare worldwide and very little was known about the species. As sad as the stranding was it was also an amazing opportunity to connect and learn about the rare species.

They could be identified by the white streak on their bellies which broadened towards their tails and co-ordinated with their white chins and lips.

The flotation device used to bring the whale from the inner estuary to shore in the Waipū River Mouth. Photo / Michael Cunningham
The flotation device used to bring the whale from the inner estuary to shore in the Waipū River Mouth. Photo / Michael Cunningham

The species were hardly ever found near the coast except in places where land deeply shelves away from the shore. Pygmy killer whales seemed to prefer deep, warm waters.

Massey University scientists were on the beach monitored and assessing the whales constantly and were working with hapu about taking samples for further studies.

Thibaud Guerin, from Trioceans Research, helps keep a whale cool and comfortable. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Thibaud Guerin, from Trioceans Research, helps keep a whale cool and comfortable. Photo / Michael Cunningham