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Story highlights

Twenty-four of the 198 pilot whales stranded on Farewell Spit have already died

Conservation officials and volunteers will try to refloat the surviving whales

(CNN) —  

Conservationists are racing to try to save more than 170 whales stranded on a remote beach on New Zealand’s South Island.

Twenty-four of the 198 pilot whales stuck on the beach have already died, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation said Friday.

The department’s staff, helped by 140 volunteers, were planning to try to refloat the giant mammals as the tide rose Friday evening, it said.

The whales are stuck on Farewell Spit, a thin claw of land that reaches out into the sea from the northern tip of the South Island.

The spit forms the top of Golden Bay, which is known as a stranding hotspot because of its protruding coastline, gently sloping beaches and system of currents.

The Department of Conservation advised the public not to try to come and help the efforts to save the whales.

“Refloating stranded whales is a difficult and potentially dangerous job, so it’s important we have the right people on the ground tonight trying to get these whales back to safety,” said Andrew Lamason, the department’s services manager for Golden Bay.

The stranding of large sea mammals – something that usually happens naturally – is nothing new to New Zealand, where the Department of Conservation responds, on average, to 85 such incidents a year.

Surrounded by oceans rich in marine life, New Zealand has one of the highest stranding rates for sea mammals in the world.

CNN’s Mitra Mobasherat contributed to this report.