About 300 of the beached whales were dead by the time they were found Friday morning, APTN reported.
“It’s always a bit grim, especially this number,” said Mike Ogle, a ranger from the Department of Conservation. “This is a lot of dead whales.”
Nearly 500 volunteers, including locals, tourists and rescue group Project Jonah raced to keep the surviving whales alive by placing blankets over them, and dousing them with buckets of water as they waited for high tide.
Volunteers were then able to help surviving whales back in the ocean, although nearly 100 more remained beached.
“There’s a lot of death here, which is a sad thing,” said Alex Waller, who was part of the volunteer rescue efforts. “But hey, if we can get some of them out, that’s got to be a good thing.”
However, some experts were less optimistic. Ogle said they would not be able to assess how successful their efforts were in rescuing the whales for another day or so, especially since the pilot whales appeared to be weak.
“They weren’t swimming off strongly. They weren’t looking very organized,” Ogle explained.
Volunteers from around the country arrived at the remote beach at the northern tip of South Island to help rescue the whales, despite it being a three-hour drive and 15-minute hike from the nearest airport.
“I was here first thing this morning, and there was a small group of us,” said volunteer Kyle Mulinder, who arrived with Project Jonah. “I’ve never experienced death like this before. For such a majestic animal, it’s really strange to see them doing this.”
Some call the area, Farewell Spit, a whale trap, since it has been home to beachings in the past. The area is believed to confuse whales, however, experts are unsure what causes the whales to become beached.
"This is the third largest mass stranding that we've recorded in our history,” said marine biologist Rochelle Constantine, from Auckland University “It's a very large one, [and] logistically it's a massive undertaking.”