Hundreds of whales dead after stranding off Australia’s Tasmania

Katie Ramirez
September 23, 2020

Almost 500 pilot whales have been found stranded on an Australian shore on Wednesday, the most significant mass stranding ever recorded in the nation.

"We have got a more accurate count and we can confirm that 380 whales are dead", Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service manager Nic Deka said.

Authorities had already been working to rescue survivors among an estimated 270 whales found Monday on a beach and two sand bars near the remote west coast town of Strahan on the island state of Tasmania.

About a third of the initial 270-strong group are thought to have died, and more information about their condition expected to be known later today.

On September 23, a separate group of another 200 were spotted during an aerial reconnaissance to check how many whales were still alive, less than 6 miles (10 kilometers) to the south, taking the tally to 470.

The additional whales were found in a part of the harbor where the water is a dark tannin color - so they may have been stranded, washed back into the water, then back into the bay, making them more hard to detect, Deka said.

Carlyon said, "This is definitely the biggest [mass stranding] in Tasmania and we believe it is the biggest in Australia, in terms of numbers stranded and died".

Rescue crews remained optimistic about freeing more whales, Carlyon said.

"We are going to basically take the animals with the best chance to start with and the ones that we (are) able to deal with".

The causes of mass strandings remain unknown, but scientists have suggested the highly sociable pilot whales may have gone off track after feeding close to the shoreline or by following one or two whales that strayed.

Rescue teams work to save a pilot whale in Tasmania
Rescue teams work to save a pilot whale in Tasmania

The freed whales were likely to reform their social group, Dr Carlyon said.

More than 450 long-finned pilot whales were caught on sandbanks and beaches inside Macquarie Harbour with a rescue effort starting on Tuesday morning.

New Zealand and neighbouring Australia are hotspots for mass whale strandings, thanks to large colonies of pilot whales living in the deep oceans surrounding both island nations.

The latest stranding is the first involving more than 50 whales in Tasmania since 2009.

Marine scientist Vanessa Pirotta said there were a number of potential reasons that whales might become beached, including navigational errors.

Harnesses and stretchers are often used, sometimes to attach a whale to a boat to be dragged out to sea.

Some 50 whales have been rescued and coaxed back to the open ocean.

Researchers say it's possible that one leading individual could have mistakenly led the whole group to shore.

"We're not at a stage where we're considering euthanasia", Dr Carlyon said.

And rescuing them doesn't always work "because they are wanting to return back to the pod, they might hear the acoustics for the vocalizations of the sounds that the others are making, or they're just disoriented and in this case extremely stressed, and just probably so worn out that they in some cases don't know where they are", she added.

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