Hundreds of vacationers witnessed the birth of a long-finned pilot whale as they struggled to rescue an entire pod stranded on a treacherous beach in New Zealand.

The mother was among 63 whales, mostly cows with calves, that were beached at Colville Bay near Coromandel township early on Sunday. About two thirds of the animals, measuring up to 12 feet long, were saved by residents and holidaymakers who kept them wet in the low tide until they could be refloated in the afternoon.

By Monday a Department of Conservation boat, which had kept close to the pod to ensure that it did not return, reported that the whales were at least 20 miles out to sea, according to Mike Donaghue, a senior adviser at the department.

Ingrid Visser, of the Orca Research Trust charity, watched the calf being born. “It was an amazing sight to see the calf pop like a cork out of the water. We had only just refloated the calf’s mother and once the calf was born the cow took it first to the group of whales nearest her, then to the other two. Within 15 minutes she had headed out to sea with the calf and the others had followed her.”

She said that it was likely that the distressed mother had traveled into the shallow bay for protection and her pod had followed her.

“I’ve seen this a lot. The key whales, by which I mean the whales who lead the stranding, are often cows in distress. They head into the shallow waters to get protection from predators and their pod follows. They all become disorientated in the shallows and beach themselves.

“This particular cow was desperately anxious to get off the beach and back into the water. She was actually dragging her rescuers along the beach with her. When we saw the calf pop its head up it all made sense.”

Visser added: “It was a major thing for us to see, not just as rescuers but as researchers. It was also such a heartening thing to see after the tragedy of watching all those animals dying.”

The triumphant rescue came less than 48 hours after more than a hundred whales died in a separate stranding. Such accidents are common in New Zealand, with up to six mass strandings a year, but it is rare for two so close together.

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