Two mass strandings a day apart left 126 whales dead on New Zealand beaches, though rescuers and volunteers managed to save 43 others.
On the Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island, Maoris buried 21 pilot whales beneath a headland they consider sacred. The rest of the pod was coaxed back out to sea after rescue workers, helped by hundreds of holidaymakers, kept the mammals wet on the sands, then re-floated them at high tide.
A day earlier, 105 long-finned pilot whales had been spotted on a beach near Nelson, on the South Island, by the pilot of a tourist plane. A local wildlife manager, Hans Stoffregen, said only 30 whales were alive when conservation officers arrived.
"They were in bad shape," he said. "By the time we got there, two- thirds of them had already died. We had to euthanise the rest." The whales had been out of the water for some time, he added. "It had been quite hot and they were very distressed. You could see the pain and suffering in their eyes."
Experts are unsure why such mass strandings take place every year as whales pass New Zealand on their way to breeding grounds in Antarctic waters. Some scientists suggest that the shallow, sandy shores in the area may confuse the whales' sonar system, which allows them to navigate underwater.