Tim Cuff/New Zealand Herald/AP
February 10, 2017 03:18 PM

On Friday morning, the residents of Wellington, New Zealand, awoke to an upsetting scene.

Some time between Thursday evening and Friday morning, over 400 whales, adults and babies, beached themselves on the sands of South Island’s Farewell Spit, reports the Associated Press.

Three quarters of the pilot whales stranded on the shore were dead by the time rescuers arrived. Now animal activists are rushing to save as many of the surviving whales as possible, with help from over 300 volunteers from across the country, some of whom have travelled hours to assist.

“It can be really quite distressing seeing so many dead whales,” Department of Conservation community ranger Kath Inwood told AP. “People need to be resilient and handle that and then get on with what needs to be done.”

The majority of the work is keeping the whales wet and cool, while rescuers wait for high tide. At high tide, the team gets one shot to send the whales back into the water and form a human chain in the surf to keep the animals from coming back and accidentally beaching themselves again. Several of the whales have been sent back into the ocean successfully, but many of the survivors remain beached due to the small window of time rescuers have to work.

Unfortunately, mass beachings at Farewell Spit are common. Pilot whales often have trouble navigating the waters around the area, but this stranding of over 400 whales is one of the worst in the country’s history. The exact reason why this patch of sand continues to be an issue to the whales is unknown, but many believe the beach’s far-reaching coastline and gradually sloping sands make it hard for whales who get close to shore to maneuver out.

The Department of Conservation, volunteer group Project Jonah and an increasing number of good Samaritans are focused on saving the remaining whales quickly before their health deteriorates.

This is the third largest recorded whale stranding in New Zealand, which has one of the highest rates of whale beachings in the world. The largest occurred in 1918 when 1,000 whales became stranded on the shore of the Chatham Islands, with the 1985 stranding of 450 whales in Auckland following in second.

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