Around 200 pilot whales have perished after washing up on an exposed, wave-swept beach on Tasmania’s rugged west coast, Australian rescuers said on Thursday.
Only 35 of the approximately 230 beached whales are still alive, according to the state wildlife services, which described an uphill battle ahead to save survivors.
Aerial footage of the scene revealed dozens of glowing black mammals strewn along Ocean Beach, stuck on the waterline where the freezing 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 this morning the focus will be on rescuing and releasing these animals,” said state Wildlife Operations Manager Brendon Clark.
“Unfortunately we have a high fatality rate on this particular stranding,” he added.
“The environmental conditions, the surf there on the exposed west coast, Ocean Beach, are definitely taking their toll on the animals.”
Helpers typically wade through the water and use harnesses to float the mammals into deeper water, but officials said a new technique will also be tested, using mechanical help from an aquaculture company .
From there, a ship will take them to deeper, clearer waters to avoid being stranded 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 labored for days in the freezing Tasmanian waters to free them.
Clark said conditions in the last stranding were tougher for the whales than two years ago, when the animals were in “much more sheltered waters”.
Attention will also focus on the removal and disposal of carcasses, which often attract sharks.
– Distress signals –
Necropsies will be performed to find clues as to why the whales got stranded, but scientists still don’t fully understand why mass strandings are happening.
Scientists have suggested that the pods could derail after feeding too close to shore.
Pilot whales – which can grow to over six meters (20 feet) long – are also highly social, so they can follow stray companions into danger.
This sometimes happens when old, sick, or injured animals swim ashore and other group members follow, trying to respond to distress signals from the trapped whale.
Others believe that gently sloping beaches like those found in Tasmania confuse whale sonar 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 the Australian mainland.
State officials said the incident may have been a case of “misadventure.”
In neighboring New Zealand, strandings are also common.
Around 300 animals are stranded there each year, according to official figures, 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 a “super pod” is involved – in 2017 there was a massive stranding of almost 700 pilot whales.
by Andrew LEESON