Did quakes cause orca stranding?

AMANDA PARKINSON
Last updated 14:20 13/02/2014
Fairfax NZ

Local iwi Ngai Tahu bless orcas that beached and died in Southland.

Orcas in Western Southland
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Times' chief photographer Robyn Edie captures the orca stranding near Tuatapere, Western Southland.

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Whether there was any link between an orca stranding near Tuatapere, Southland, and earthquake activity was unknown, an orca expert said today.

Nine orcas died after beaching on Tuesday.

Orca Research Trust founder Ingrid Visser, who arrived in Invercargill today, said the stranding would give scientists an opportunity to gather data on orcas.

"A lot of people are thinking that the stranding is possibly linked to seismic activities, earthquakes in the area but we don't know until we get down there [Western Southland]," Visser said.

Visser will meet iwi to discuss conducting tests on the carcasses of the eight remaining stranded orca.

If iwi agree Visser will have unprecedented access to the orcas.

"There is just no explaining what we can learn from a situation like this," she said.

'I HUGGED A DYING ORCA'

A Southland woman held the last orca of the pod as it lay dying and crying out, while the rest of its pod lay dead on the beach.

Debra Drain was one of the first to reach the nine stranded mammals, near Blue Cliffs, after a tramper told her husband, Jeff Drain, he had seen them while walking the Hump Ridge Track.

Debra Drain said several residents raced to the beach to find eight of the orcas had already died.

They had been pushed up against rocks, with their flesh torn from them, and the last one was still crying out, she said.

"I couldn't leave so I hugged a dying orca as it cried for its life."

Locals said they believed it was the same pod of orcas that had attacked sharks near Blue Cliffs last year.

Jeff Drain said it was not uncommon to see the orcas at some stage every year.

Department of Conservation spokesman Reuben Williams said no decision had been made about the remaining carcasses.

"Experts are on their way to Invercargill and we need to talk with locals before anything is decided," he said.

Several considerations needed to be taken into account, including distance, time, expense and the sheer size of the animals.

The orcas were confirmed dead at 7.30pm on Tuesday

Ngai Tahu representative Dean Whaanga flew in yesterday morning to perform a karakia (prayer).

"Whales are like chiefs of the sea and because they died before we got there we said a wee farewell to them, on this their last journey," he said.

Visser said the stranding was tragic.

"The last time we had a stranding this big in New Zealand was in the 80s in the Chatham Islands."

Visser said this was the third-largest stranding of orcas in New Zealand's history and possibly one of the 10 largest internationally.

"There are fewer than 200 orcas living off New Zealand's coast, so this represents a large portion of that," she said.

One orca was removed under DOC instruction and will be used to investigate the reasons for the stranding.

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