HOBART – About 200 pilot whales have died after washing up on an exposed, wave-battered beach on Tasmania’s rugged west coast, Australian rescuers said Thursday.
Only 35 of the approximately 230 beached whales are still alive, according to the state wildlife services, which described an uphill battle to save survivors.
Aerial footage from the scene showed dozens of shiny black mammals scattered along Ocean Beach, stuck at the waterline where the cold Southern Ocean meets the sand.
Locals covered some of the creatures with blankets and doused them with buckets of seawater to keep them alive until more help arrived.
“We have approximately 35 surviving animals on the beach and the primary focus this morning will be the rescue and release of these animals,” said Brendon Clark, director of wildlife operations for the state.
“Unfortunately with this stranding we have a high mortality rate,” he added.
“The environmental conditions, the surf there on the exposed west coast, Ocean Beach, are definitely taking their toll on the animals.”
Rescuers typically wade through the water and use harnesses to propel the mammals into deeper water, but officials said a new technique using mechanical assistance from an aquaculture company is also being tested.
From there, a ship takes them to deeper, clearer water to avoid running aground again.
Two years ago, the nearby port of Macquarie was the scene of the largest mass stranding on record in the country, involving nearly 500 pilot whales.
More than 300 pilot whales died in the stranding, despite the efforts of dozens of volunteers who struggled for days in freezing Tasmanian waters to free them.
Clark said conditions at the last stranding were tougher for the whales than they were two years ago, when the animals were in “much better sheltered waters”.
Removal and disposal of carcasses, which often attract sharks, will now be the core attention.
Autopsies are underway to find clues as to why the whales are stranded, but scientists still don’t fully understand why mass strandings are happening.
Scientists have suggested that the pods could veer off course after feeding too close to shore.
Pilot whales – which can grow up to six meters in length – are also highly social, enabling them to follow stray companions into danger.
This sometimes happens when old, sick, or injured animals swim ashore and other group members follow them, trying to respond to distress signals from the trapped whale.
Others believe that gently sloping beaches like those in Tasmania confuse whale sonars into thinking they are open water.
The latest stranding came days after a dozen young male sperm whales were reported dead in a separate mass stranding on King Island – between Tasmania and mainland Australia.
State officials said the incident could have been a case of “an accident.”
Strandings are also common in neighboring New Zealand.
According to official figures, about 300 animals are stranded there each year and it is not uncommon for groups of 20 to 50 pilot whales to strand themselves there.
But the numbers can run into the hundreds when it comes to a “supercapsule” – in 2017 there was a massive stranding of almost 700 pilot whales.
- Editor/ additional report by AFP