The beached whales were saved by an army of conservation experts and volunteers who worked tirelessly to keep the surviving animals cool and watered until Saturday’s high tide at Farewell Spit, at the northern end of Golden Bay, on South Island. The rescuers then set about the difficult and potentially dangerous job of refloating the huge mammals.

The pod of around 200 whales, ranging from juveniles to adults, became stranded on Friday; many of them got back into the water only to return and become stranded again. However, hopes are high that Saturday’s rescue effort has succeeded, and that the 60 surviving whales have now headed back into deeper waters.

“We’ve had people scouring the beaches and we’ve had a spotter plane up in the air and there was no sign of that pod,” said Andrew Lamason, services manager for Department of Conservation (DoC) Golden Bay. “It’s looking like a really good outcome for that 60 – they seem to have moved out of the bay,” he told the New Zealand Herald.

Whale and dolphin strandings are common in New Zealand, where the DoC responds to 85 incidents a year on average. But incidents typically involve only one or two creatures, and mass strandings such as the Farewell Spit tragedy are rare.

The dead whales will be tethered to an inter-tidal zone where nature will be left to take its course. A similar approach was successfully taken with three dead sperm whales at the end of November.

“We’ve had quite rare birds, especially for here, come up from the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands who are real big marine scavengers – they’ve really just taken these sperm whales apart,” said Mr Lamason. “If you take a more holistic view of it there is a positive – that’s a lot of protein that’s been put back into the eco-system.”