(WHALES) KARIKARI BEACH, NEW ZEALAND — Fifty-eight pilot whales died on the beach on the north island of New Zealand.  The absence of an explanation for the mass stranding heightened the feeling of loss for the local residents who tried to save them. — Global Animal

Sydney Morning Herald, AAP

The emotional process of burying the bodies of almost 50 whales at a beach at the top of New Zealand’s North Island has begun.

A pod of 58 pilot whales were found stranded on the white sands of Karikari Beach, in Northland, on Friday morning.

Most of them had died by the time locals alerted the NZ Department of Conservation, and initial attempts to refloat 11 survivors on Friday were hampered by heavy rain.

On Saturday, the survivors were transported by trailers and trucks to nearby Maitai Beach where rescuers successfully returned nine of them to sea.

There had been no sign of the rescued whales returning to shore on Sunday, the department said.

Department officers, working with local Maori, used mechanical diggers to move 49 whale bodies from the Karikari shore to the burial site behind sand dunes on the remote beach.

“It’s really, really tragic,” DoC spokeswoman Sioux Campbell said on Sunday.

“Just seeing that many bodies dead is a difficult thing to deal with. It’s hugely emotional.”

The burial process could take a couple of days to complete.

In 2007, 101 pilot whales stranded on the same beach.

Ms Campbell said there was no explanation for why mass strandings were common on NZ shores.

“Sometimes what happens is one of the whales is sick and because they live in very close societies the others will follow,” she said.

“Sometimes they just get lost; we think that their radar gets confused.

“For pilot whales, because they commonly mass strand like this, it’s an irony around their name really.”

Pilot whales are members of the dolphin family but are considered by experts to behave more like whales.