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Volunteers push 48 beached whales out to sea

Hundreds of volunteers worked through the night on Thursday to save the survivors of a pod of more than 100 pilot whales stranded on a north New Zealand beach.

By early afternoon, about 48 of the mammals had been encouraged back to sea, using the swell of a high tide, but more than 50 lay dead on Karikari Bay beach, conservationists said.All the live whales had been returned to the sea and rescue efforts were focusing on ensuring the mammals head further out into the Pacific Ocean.

Television news showed people moving the other pilot whales, between 5.6 meters and 8 meters long, into the shallows.

Several older female whales, lifted and towed out into the rising tide, helped lead the group off the sand as the waters rose, and rescue coordinators said they were soon well offshore.

The maneuver had been used successfully by rescuers in the region in the past for similar strandings during the pilot whales' annual migration between August and November.

"We've put a spotter plane up to monitor their progress," Department of Conservation (DoC) spokeswoman Wanda Vivequin told national radio.

"That plane will go up again just before sunset to check that the pod has remained intact and none of them have drifted off the side," she added.

The distressed whales had been noticed high up on the shore late on Wednesday, in the bay about 45 miles from the northernmost point of New Zealand's North Island.

But 53 had died by the time volunteers started arriving with rescue equipment, Vivequin said.

An estimated 400 locals and visitors worked all night with spades, water hoses, containers and towels to cool the whales, spread along a 750-yard beach, as they waited for high water and daylight to return to the sea.