Rescuers forced to start putting down pilot whales in mass stranding
Epic race against time to save 20 pilot whales after Australia’s largest ever mass stranding sees 350 die after becoming beached on sandbar – as rescuers face a grim final task
- Rescuers saved 94 whales after Australia’s worst recorded mass stranding at Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbour
- Around 350 of 470 whales confirmed to have died after their pod got into trouble on a sandbar at the inlet
- Conservation crews face having to dispose carcasses and will likely tow them out to sea within the next week
After days wading through chilly waters, surrounded by the pained cries of hundreds of stranded whales on Australia’s south coast, rescuers faced the grim task Friday of disposing of the carcasses.
In ‘one hell of an effort’, a crew of around 100 conservationists and skilled volunteers saved 94 of the 470 animals stranded on Tasmania’s rugged western seaboard — Australia’s largest-ever mass stranding, Tasmanian environment department marine biologist Kris Carlyon told media.
‘With this one, we are dealing with something unique, we haven’t dealt with a stranding of this type before,’ Carlyon said, adding the offshore rescue of such a large number was particularly unusual.
Tasmania Parks and Wildlife lowered its estimate of the death toll from 380 to 350 on Friday, and rescuers remained hopeful they could save up to 20 more of the creatures.
A team of 100 volunteers and conservationists have raced to save a massive pod of distressed pilot whales that became stranded on the sandbanks at Macquarie Harbour (pictured), off Tasmania’s west coast, on Monday
About 470 whales (beached whale pictured on Friday) were beached in the largest mass stranding ever recorded in Australia
The massive rescue operation has only been able to save 94 whales (whale pictured on Friday) and at least 350 have died
Rescue crews have also been faced with the challenge of disposing of the carcasses and have trialled towing the dead whales out to sea before cutting them loose (rescue team pictured with a beached whale on Friday)
But the focus was shifting to how to dispose of the carcasses as quickly as possible over fears the decomposing corpses could damage the environment in Macquarie Harbour, drift into the paths of boats or attract sharks.
Several methods were being trialled for moving the dead whales — including towing them out to sea before cutting them loose to sink in deeper water.
‘They’re hard moments, when there’s so much to go and it just feels defeating, it feels never-ending,’ Wildcare volunteer Josh Gourlay told AFP.
‘When you see what it looked like before and what it is now and you think — actually… we’ve done really well.’
With rescuers braving relentless rains, strong winds and cold waters for hours daily to try and save the struggling animals, he admitted the effort had taken its toll on him.
‘You almost need a whale’s thick skin to be out there as well.’
– ‘We can’t save them all’ –
Pilot whales (rescue crew pictured on Friday) are highly social creatures and can grow up to six metres (20 feet) long
Rescue crews (pictured) said fighting to save the dying whales and hearing their anguished cries was ’emotional’
A map shows the two locations where the whales were stranded this week as rescuers desperately try to save the survivors
Pilot whales — which can grow up to six metres (20 feet) long and weigh a tonne — are known to be highly social.
Some animals have resisted rescue or tried to return to their family after being freed, becoming beached for a second time.
The causes of mass strandings remain unknown despite scientists studying the phenomenon for decades.
Despite some restrandings, there were hopes the surviving whales would recover from the stressful event, Carlyon said.
Four whales (pilot whale pictured) have been euthanising by wildlife authorities with firearms and specialist ammunition
Crews (pictured) have been trialling methods to remove the dead whales and are likely to tow carcasses by boat out to sea
Experts feared the decomposing corpses (dead pilot whale pictured on Thursday) could damage the environment in Macquarie Harbour and drift into the paths of boats or attract sharks
The mass stranding (coastline pictured) surpasses a 1996 beaching of 320 pilot whales at Dunsborough in Western Australia
A pilot whale is washed up during the mass stranding on the Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast
‘Ideally, they will regroup, they will reform those bonds, and they’ll get on with things.’
Gourlay and his fiancee, Corey Young, said crews were still positive despite the physical and emotional burden of the rescue.
‘Hearing the crying, that is probably the most distressing part,’ he said, adding that the anguished noises from calves separated from their mothers were hard to shake.
But Young said the teams, mostly made up of people accustomed to helping animals in tragic circumstances, were rallying around each other.
‘We can’t save them all, that’s for sure… you’ve got to be positive.’
Tasmania’s previous largest mass stranding involved 294 long-finned pilot whales in 1935 (whale pictured on Wednesday)
It is believed two whale groups from the same pod ventured close to the Tasmanian shore (pictured) to hunt
The body of a dead pilot whale is seen at Macquarie Harbour on Thursday in Strahan, western Tasmania after the worst mass stranding recorded in Australia
Dr Carlyon said four of the whales had to be euthanised for welfare reasons.
‘These are animals that we’ve given a chance. We’ve tried to release them, they haven’t done well,’ he said.
The mass stranding surpasses a 1996 beaching of 320 pilot whales at Dunsborough in Western Australia.
Previously, Tasmania’s largest mass stranding involved 294 long-finned pilot whales at Stanley in 1935.
One large group was initially discovered stranded near the harbour’s head on Monday, with rescuers on Wednesday spotting 200 dead whales a few kilometres away.
It is thought the two groups were part of the same pod and ventured close to shore to hunt.
Why are the whales stranded?
Tasmania is the only part of Australia prone to mass strandings, although they occasionally occur on the Australian mainland.
Scientists are unsure why exactly they run aground.
Marine Conservation Programme wildlife biologist Kris Carlyon said the pod may have been drawn into the coast to feed or by the misadventure of one or two whales, which led to the rest of the pod following.
Marine scientist Vanessa Pirotta said there were a number of potential reasons why whales might become beached, including navigational errors.
‘They do have a very strong social system, these animals are closely bonded and that’s why we have seen so many in this case unfortunately in this situation,’ Ms Pirotta said.
Another potential cause is when the whales use magnetic fields for navigation, they get perplexed by geomagnetic anomalies or they may be following a sick member of their group that got stranded
Long-finned pilot whales are known for large strandings because they stick together in tight social structures.
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