More back-breaking effort or heartbreak looms at dawn today as rescuers decide whether to make yet another bid to refloat a pod of 50 pilot whales beached at Farewell Spit.
The whales, which stranded for a second time in two days late yesterday, initially became stuck in the waning tides on Saturday and again yesterday.
About 62 whales were involved but their numbers dwindled with a handful dying in the stressful conditions.
Another eight were put down because they were beyond saving and because Department of Conservation staff hoped that silencing them would stop the remainder from coming back into the treacherously shallow waters.
But the exhaustive efforts of more than 100 people, many of them Project Jonah volunteers, ended in disappointment.
Working in waist deep waters they heaved and shoved the whales into deeper water and at one stage most were swimming off to the other side of Golden Bay.
DOC ranger Neil Murray said they thought they had moved 50 whales off the beach yesterday, but within about four hours, 48 were back.
"Essentially the whole pod had beached again," he said.
"We're looking after them till dark and we'll have another look first thing [on Monday] - around 5.30am - and we'll assess them then.
"It's frustrating as much as anything. Everyone's doing their best and doing the right thing. We don't know what's going on but they keep coming back."
Excluding this pod, more than 60 pilot whales have already died or been put down on the stretch of Golden Bay coastline this year.
Marine mammal specialist Anton van Helden said Farewell Spit was a classic whale trap with a large tidal flat behind the 25km spit. Whales quite often came into shallow water to give birth to their calves or to follow prey.
- Fairfax Media