New Zealand warns of exploding whale carcasses after mass stranding

WELLINGTON, Feb 13 (Reuters) - New Zealand authorities were cutting holes in 300 whale carcasses on Monday, popping the dead animals "like balloons," to avoid them exploding as they decompose on Golden Bay after more than 600 whales became stranded.

Hundreds of rescuers managed to save around 400 pilot whales on the South Island beach on the weekend after one of New Zealand's largest whale strandings.

But hundreds of whales died on the beach and the Department of Conservation (DOC) cordoned off the bodies and urged the public to call them if they found whale carcasses that had floated off the beach and washed up on nearby shores.

"The area is currently closed to the public because of the risk from whales exploding," the conservation department said in a statement.

Workers in protective clothing would spend the day cutting holes in the whale carcasses, "like popping balloons" with knives and two meter (six feet) needles, to release internal gases that build up pressure, a DOC spokesman told local radio.

See photos of the tragedy:

14 PHOTOS
Hundreds of stranded whales in New Zealand
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Hundreds of stranded whales in New Zealand
Volunteers try to guide some of the stranded pilot whales still alive (in background) back out to sea after one of the country's largest recorded mass whale strandings, in Golden Bay, at the top of New Zealand's South Island, February 11, 2017. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
Some of the hundreds of stranded pilot whales marked with an 'X' to indicate they have died can be seen together after one of the country's largest recorded mass whale strandings, in Golden Bay, at the top of New Zealand's South Island, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
A whale's eye is seen as volunteers prepare to refloat a pod of stranded pilot whales after one of the country's largest recorded mass whale strandings, in Golden Bay, at the top of New Zealand's South Island, February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
A volunteer looks after a whale, part of a pod of stranded pilot whales, as they prepare to refloat them after one of the country's largest recorded mass whale strandings, in Golden Bay, at the top of New Zealand's South Island, February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
A volunteer looks after a whale, part of a pod of stranded pilot whales, as they prepare to refloat them after one of the country's largest recorded mass whale strandings, in Golden Bay, at the top of New Zealand's South Island, February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Anthony Phelps
This picture taken on February 11, 2017 shows dead pilot whales lining the shore after a mass stranding at Farewell Spit. Whale rescuers were cautiously optimistic on February 12 that the current wave of mass beachings in New Zealand was over, after hundreds of the creatures died after being stranded ashore. / AFP / Marty MELVILLE (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on February 11, 2017 shows a volunteer caring for pilot whales during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit. Most of the more than 200 whales who became stranded on New Zealand's notorious Farewell Spit on the weekend have been able to refloat themselves, conservation officials said on February 12. / AFP / Marty MELVILLE (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on February 11, 2017 shows pilot whales lying on a beach during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit. Most of the more than 200 whales who became stranded on New Zealand's notorious Farewell Spit on the weekend have been able to refloat themselves, conservation officials said on February 12. / AFP / Marty MELVILLE (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on February 11, 2017 shows volunteers caring for pilot whales during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit. Most of the more than 200 whales who became stranded on New Zealand's notorious Farewell Spit on the weekend have been able to refloat themselves, conservation officials said on February 12. / AFP / Marty MELVILLE (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the public looks at the dead Pilot whales during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit on February 11, 2017. More than 400 whales were stranded on a New Zealand beach on February 10, with most of them dying quickly as frustrated volunteers desperately raced to save the survivors. / AFP / Marty MELVILLE (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
A pilot whale and her calf lie in shallow waters during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit on February 11, 2017. Rescuers defied a shark threat to form a human chain in a New Zealand bay on February 11 in a bid to keep another 200 whales from becoming stranded a day after hundreds died in a mass beaching. / AFP / Marty MELVILLE (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
A volunteer pours water over the stranded pilot whales during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit on February 11, 2017. More than 400 whales were stranded on a New Zealand beach on February 10, with most of them dying quickly as frustrated volunteers desperately raced to save the survivors. / AFP / Marty MELVILLE (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteers pour water over the stranded pilot whales during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit on February 11, 2017. More than 400 whales were stranded on a New Zealand beach on February 10, with most of them dying quickly as frustrated volunteers desperately raced to save the survivors. / AFP / Marty MELVILLE (Photo credit should read MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)
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It would take several months for the bodies to decompose and turn into skeletons.

The surviving whales were last seen swimming six kms (four miles) offshore on Sunday evening, according to DOC.

Last Thursday a pod of about 400 whales became stranded, with a second pod of more than 200 whales stranded on Saturday.

The precise cause of the whale strandings was not known.

Beached whales are not uncommon on Golden Bay. Its shallow muddy waters confuse the whale's sonar, leaving it vulnerable to stranding by an ebb tide, according to marine environmental organization Project Jonah.

Pilot whales are not listed as endangered, but little is known about their population in New Zealand waters. (Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Michael Perry)

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