New Zealand dubbed world's 'whale stranding capital'

  • 04/01/2019

The global spotlight is on New Zealand as whale strandings have become increasingly common across the country. 

Whale experts regard Aotearoa as the "whale stranding capital of the world", where over 5000 incidents have been recorded since 1840, the Guardian reports

The Department of Conservation (DoC) responds to about 85 incidents a year.

Scientists were left baffled after 50 pilot whales died after a stranding at Chatham Islands in November, while another had to be euthanized. Earlier that week, 145 whales perished on Stewart Island while another 11 died in Northland.    

In May, a total of 11 sperm whales were discovered on a south Taranaki beach. It followed three separate whale strandings in 2016 on beaches near Opunake, Patea and Rahotu while in 2011, two tourists found a pod of 107 pilot whales beached and dying at Mason Bay. 

As the Guardian notes, definitive information on why whales strand "remains elusive". 

Some scientists believe climate change is to blame, with warming ocean temperatures creeping closer to the shore and forcing whales to pursue food in shallow waters. 

"[Warming waters] may create different feeding situations for some of these animals, it's all basically guesswork," marine mammal expert Jo 'Floppy' Halliday told Newshub last month

"[There's] probably a whole host of different factors that come together and create half of these problems."

And as scientists debate the cause of whale strandings in New Zealand, Māori are left feeling hopeless and frustrated. The majestic creatures are regarded as their ancestors and taonga (treasures). 

"When will we talk about what is hurting these animals out on the sea? They are drowning out there, they can't breathe, they beach themselves to be with [their ancestors]," Ngātiwai tribe elder Parata told the Guardian

Parata's people do not interfere when the DoC and volunteer groups take the lead in rescue efforts, but the tribe believes whales are "trying to escape an increasingly polluted and unpredictable ocean".

"Man's greed in the ocean is hurting the whales."

He told the Guardian it's "very emotional" watching the painful deaths of their ancestors. He says the sea is trying to tell us something.

"We need to listen."