Conservation workers and volunteers in southern New Zealand were elated Saturday after an aerial search showed a stranded pod of whales had made their way back to the open seas.
Twenty-two pilot whales died after the pod became stranded twice in 24 hours on Maori Beach, Stewart Island, at the country's southernmost tip.
New Zealand Conservation Department (DOC) staff had feared all the remaining pod members would perish in a third beaching.
However, DOC southern islands area manager Greg Lind said an aerial sweep over the area Saturday morning found no trace of the whales.
"They were last seen yesterday 10 kilometers north from the stranding site. We checked all the beaches on the northern part of Stewart Island round to the west side today and they are gone," Lind said Saturday.
"That's really good news. It's a good Christmas present."
The drama began on Thursday when 42 whales were found beached by two English biologists walking in the area.
Twelve of the stranded whales died but the others returned to sea. However on Friday another 54 whales from the pod were found stranded at the same beach, of which 10 were already dead.
With the help of 30 DOC staff and volunteers, 15 of the mammals found their way back to deep water, while the rest managed on their own.
Boats were used to force the estimated remaining 80 whales away from the beach and eight kilometers (five miles) out to sea.
However, after the boats backed off the whales started heading back to shore, forcing rescuers to intervene again and direct them away.
"They were quite agitated and distressed and quite confused," DOC spokesman Tom O'Connor said.
Desperate rescuers were preparing late Friday to shoot some whales to save others should they beach a third time. It was planned to shoot the
first whales that stranded in an attempt to prevent others being attracted by their sounds of distress.
O'Connor was full of praise for the exhausted volunteers who had helped save the whales during the past two days.
"I really am in admiration of the people of Stewart Island, who did such a magnificent job. Without them, we would have had a huge disaster.
"It is really hard work in freezing water" -- AUCKLAND (AFP)
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