10/02/2017 10:33 GMT | Updated 10/02/2017 10:33 GMT

Pilot Whales Stranded In New Zealand Leads To Huge Volunteer Rescue Effort

It is the worst whale beaching in New Zealand for 30 years.

Hundreds of whales have died after becoming stranded on a beach in New Zealand as volunteers try desperately to save the remaining animals.

More than 400 pilot whales became beached on Farewell Spit, at the top of the South Island, in what has become one of the worst whale strandings in the country’s history.

About 275 of the whales were already dead when they were discovered on   Thursday.

It is not yet known what caused the animals to beach themselves. 

Anthony Phelps / Reuters
Some of the hundreds of stranded pilot whales marked with an 'X' to indicate they have died
Anthony Phelps / Reuters
Volunteers frantically working to save the survivors of the beaching

The country’s Department of Conservation has faced criticism for not reacting quicker to the tragedy. 

The department first received reports of the stranded pod on Thursday at about 8pm but did not send a rescue team until 5.30am the following morning because it said it was too dangerous to attempt to rescue the whales at night, the New Zealand Herald reports.

Hundreds of farmers, tourists and teenagers congregated on the beach in a bid to save the animals. 

“You could hear the sounds of splashing, of blowholes being cleared, of sighing,” Cheree Morrison, who found the whales told the Associated Press.

“The young ones were the worst. Crying is the only way to describe it.”

Anthony Phelps / Reuters
Rescuers took turns pouring water over the beached whales to try and keep them cool
Anthony Phelps / Reuters
Hundreds of volunteers worked to save the animals

Rescuers took turns pouring water over the beached whales to try and keep them cool, while school children sang to soothe the distressed animals, Reuters reports.

Volunteer rescue group Project Jonah said a total of 416 whales had been stranded.

When high tide came, volunteers managed to refloat about 50 of the surviving whales while the other 80 or 90 remained beached.

Volunteers formed a human chain in the water in an attempt to stop the whales swimming back and stranding themselves again.

Volunteer Ana Wiles described what it was like trying to return the whales to the sea.

She told news outlet Stuff that there were “so many fins in the air, no breathing”.

“We managed to float quite a few whales off and there were an awful lot of dead ones in the shallows so it was really, really sad,” Wiles said.

“One of the nicest things was we managed to float off a couple [of whales] and they had babies and the babies were following.”

Anthony Phelps / Reuters
Volunteers attend to some of the hundreds of stranded pilot whales still alive after the stranding
Anthony Phelps / Reuters
This week's incident is one of the country's largest recorded mass whale strandings

More whales are expected to be refloated by volunteers on Saturday.

This week’s incident is the largest known whale stranding since 1985 when about 450 whales stranded in Auckland.

The largest was in 1918, when about 1,000 pilot whales came ashore on the Chatham Islands.