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Friday, 22 December, 2000, 16:30 GMT
Whales swim to freedom
Beached pilot whale
Rescuers comforted the whales as they waited for high tide
A pod of 45 pilot whales was swimming out into open sea, late Friday, following a battle to remove them from a New Zealand beach, where 22 others had become stranded and died.

According to conservation officials, the surviving whales were swimming six miles from the beach on Friday night.

A dawn flight is planned for Saturday to check nearby beaches and bays in case the survivors turn around during the night.

The saga began on Thursday when the beached whales were discovered at Maori Beach on Stewart Island, off the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island, by two British walkers.

Stewart Island location

Volunteers and trained whale rescuers rushed to the scene in an effort to save the animals.

They worked for 30 hours in rain, hail and cold water to comfort and refloat the whales.

At high tide late on Friday morning they were able to help the mammals find their way back into deeper water.

Leading to safety

Then using inflatable dinghies to encircle the whales they began shepherding them away from the beach.

"We put a lot of pressure on the pod to get it away from the beach. We herded them for six hours, and at times they were agitated and distressed," said Greg Lind of the Department of Conservation.

Only in the late afternoon did the whales' behaviour change.

"They moved north-west up the coastline to a point well clear of the beaches, so we let them go," Mr Lind said.

The whales were continuing to head away from the stranding site at nightfall.

Left to rot

The 22 carcasses on the beach, each weighing about a ton, will be left to rot away.

The remote location has made it impossible to bury or otherwise dispose of the dead whales.

Local conservation staff said there was no history of whales beaching themselves on Maori Beach.

Two years ago, 288 whales died after beaching themselves at isolated Doughboy Bay on Stewart Island's south-east coast.

It's not clear why whales beach themselves, but mass beachings occur every year.

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