About 200 pilot whales have died after they washed up on an open beach that swept across the west coast of Tasmania, Australian rescuers said Thursday.
Only 35 of about 230 shore whales are still alive, according to the State Wildlife Service, which described a tough battle awaiting the rescue of survivors.
Aerial images from the scene revealed dozens of shiny black mammals scattered along the ocean shore, stuck at the waterline where the frozen Southern Ocean meets the sand.
Locals covered some of the creatures with blankets and poured buckets of seawater on them to keep them alive until more help arrived.
“We have successfully pulled 35 animals alive ashore, and this morning the primary focus will be on saving and releasing these animals,” said Brendon Clark, director of state wildlife operations.
“Unfortunately, we have a high mortality rate in this particular delinquency,” he added.
“Environmental conditions, and the surfing there on the exposed West Coast, Ocean Beach, definitely affects the animals.”
The assistants usually wade in the water and use belts to float the mammals in deep water, but officials said a new technology would also be tested, using the mechanical assistance of an aquaculture company.
From there the ship will take them to clearer waters to avoid new strands.
Two years ago, nearby Port Macquarie was the scene of the country’s largest mass stranding ever, involving nearly 500 pilot whales.
More than 300 pilot whales died during those strandings, despite the efforts of dozens of volunteers who worked for days in the frigid waters of Tasmania to free them.
Clark said recent stranding conditions have been more difficult for the whales than they were two years ago, when the animals were in “much more sheltered waters.”
Attention will also go to the removal and disposal of carcasses, which often attract sharks.
– distress signals –
Autopsies will be performed for clues as to why whale shorelines, but scientists still don’t fully understand why mass strandings occur.
Scientists have suggested that the pods may be veered off course after feeding too close to shore.
Pilot whales — which can grow to more than six meters (20 feet) long — are also highly social, so they may track mates who have strayed into danger.
Sometimes this occurs when elderly, sick or injured animals swim ashore and other members of the flock follow them, trying to respond to the distress signals of the trapped whale.
Others think gently sloping beaches like those in Tasmania confuse whale sonar making them think they’re in open water.
The latest stranding came days after dozens of 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 “bad faith”.
Threads are also spread in neighboring New Zealand.
There, about 300 animals groom themselves annually, according to official figures, and it’s not unusual for groups of 20 to 50 pilot whales to strand.
But numbers can run into the hundreds when it comes to “super mirage” – in 2017, there was a mass stranding of nearly 700 pilot whales.
by Andrew Leeson