More than 400 whales stranded at top of South Island

Inwood said that volunteers refloated the whales at high tide, forming a chain to stop them from swimming back onshore.

A bystander looks at a row of dead pilot whales after the mass stranding at Farewell Spit, on New Zealand's South Island, on Saturday.

Even for a country with the most whale strandings in the world, the scale of the latest event "was a shock", said Darren Grover manager of marine environmental organisation Project Jonah. The doomed school had swum onto the shore on Thursday evening during the high tide, but when the tide receded they were left stranded.

It was the largest-ever recorded mainland whale stranding in New Zealand. None of the new whales bore those tags, NBC News reports.

Livermore says that the success of refloating depends partly on the severity of the whales' injuries and the depth of the water they are pushed into.

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Volunteers refloated about 100 whales on Friday before 50 again became beached later in the day, according to Department of Conservation community ranger Kath Inwood.

As of Friday afternoon (local time), the whales have been spotted returning back to the beach, with some of them getting caught in the sands again.

Majority died but volunteers converged Saturday on the spit, which is a notorious whale trap, to help in the rescue of 100 survivors.

Over the past couple of days, a total of 650 whales have stranded themselves along the Farewell Spit coastline that is five kilometres long and is situated at the northern tip of South Island. The largest one on record was in 1918, when about 1,000 pilot whales came ashore on the Chatham Islands.

However, the newest incident is among the largest instances of whale beaching in New Zealand in recent times.

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He said: "Some of these whales are already free-swimming as the tide is already around them, so we'll be working to get the rest of those live whales together and then get them out as the tide starts to recede".

Six years ago 70 pilot whales stranded in the same area, also in February. In 1985 around 450 whales were stranded in Auckland.

There are various theories as to why whales strand, with reasons including old age, injury, navigational errors.

Farewell Spit has been described as a whale trap, as its long coastline can be hard for whales to navigate away from.

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