“It's always fantastic to see whales out in deeper water where they should be,” Hawkes said. “Everyone is very hopeful but also very realistic.”
The whales were first noticed by a tour operator on Monday morning, the Department of Conservation said. Conservation rangers helped coordinate the rescue effort alongside volunteers from Project Jonah, while people who lived in the area also helped out.
Farewell Spit, a sliver of sand that arches like a hook into the Tasman Sea, has been the site of previous mass strandings. Sometimes described as a whale trap, the spit’s long coastline and gently sloping beaches seem to make it difficult for whales to navigate away once they get close.
There are different theories as to why whales strand themselves, from chasing prey too far inshore to trying to protect a sick member of the group or escaping a predator.
Four years ago, more than 650 pilot whales beached themselves on Farewell Spit in two separate mass strandings. More than 350 died while about 300 were saved.
Pilot whales are relatively small but can grow to over 6 meters (20 feet).