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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 December 2005, 05:06 GMT
Stranded NZ whales return to sea
Conservation workers and volunteers use a high tide Wednesday to refloat whales - 21/12/05
Volunteers included foreign tourists

Rescuers have freed 110 pilot whales stranded for 24 hours on a beach on New Zealand's South Island.

More than 100 volunteers helped refloat the whales, using high tide to help send them back out to sea.

About 15 of the 5m-long whales died, in one of the country's biggest mass strandings in a decade.

Conservation officials used a flotilla of small boats to help shepherd the whales away from the shallows and towards open water.

They hope to stop the whales turning back towards the shallow beach and becoming stranded for a second time.

The workers, who included foreign tourists, set up sprinklers to pump water over the whales and to try and keep them cool with wet sheets.

"I think people feel a very strong connection with the whales and are quite touched by their plight," said Trish Grant of New Zealand's conservation department.

"I think there's quite a buoyant mood because people were glad to be involved in trying to help rescue these whales."

Foreign help

The whales had beached in two groups, one near the top of Puponga Beach at Farewell Spit and the second further out.

Another pod of 40 whales was spotted offshore near the stranded groups but did not come aground, officials said.

Conservation worker John Mason said they had tracked the whales since they were first seen early on Tuesday, apparently confused and swimming near the shore at Farewell Spit.

"It wasn't a great surprise to us when they began to strand when the tide turned and began to go out," he told the Associated Press news agency.

German backpacker Martin Huehmergarth said he had been looking at photographs of stranded whales in a beach cafe and, minutes later, "we were up to our hips in the sea bailing buckets of water, doing it for real".

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