It was a community effort as volunteers rallied to save a pod of whales after a mass stranding near Ohope.
Close to 100 volunteers from across the North Island, with Ohope locals, turned out to Ohiwa Harbour to help save more than 60 pilot whales that became stranded on Tuesday afternoon.
Department of Conservation community relations adviser Steve Brightwell said one whale stranded on the beach about 4pm, with about 60 others following suit hours later.
That night residents from the area, along with 70 Project Jonah volunteers, helped refloat the whales.
About 30 were refloated on Tuesday night. Yesterday morning 21 whales were alive but stranded in the harbour. With the help of DoC staff, Project Jonah volunteers and locals, all were refloated and returned to sea about 11am.
A total of 24 whales died, including 10 that were euthanised, Mr Brightwell said.
Mr Brightwell said it was a good result and the amount of support from the community was overwhelming.
"We certainly wouldn't have been able to get those whales back into the water if it wasn't for the community and volunteers who helped. We couldn't have done it alone," he said.
Mr Brightwell said pilot whale strandings weren't uncommon, but the location of the stranding was.
"It's very unusual. You might see the odd orca but pilot whales aren't known to swim in this area."
Project Jonah general manager Daren Grover said it was fortunate conditions changed to allow volunteers, some who had travelled from as far as Hawke's Bay and Auckland, to help get the whales out into the ocean.
They had initially been waiting for high tide at 6pm last night to attempt the refloat, he said. "As you can imagine attempting to move 21 live whales, which weigh a couple of tonnes each, is no easy feat in shallow water, so it's a good thing the water level picked up."
Mr Grover said some of the whales had to be placed on pontoons and were led out ahead of the other whales to coax them to follow.
A helicopter was used so the sound of it would help push them forward.
Bruce Jenkins, who owns Ohope Beach Four Square, and his daughter Rebecca, rushed to help the whales at the crack of dawn yesterday.
He made a call to a few sponsors and donated food from his shop to help the volunteers, as well as bringing his dingy along to help herd the whales out to sea.
Miss Jenkins said it was an "amazing feeling" when she realised the whales had passed the sandbar and were safely at sea. "It's the first time I've seen pilot whales, or any whales up close. It's pretty cool being able to help them in some way."
Many of the dead whales were buried at Ohiwa beach yesterday, with others awaiting burial and a blessing by local iwi in the next few days.