Around 90 stranded pilot whales died in Australia: 180 are still stuck

Whale rescue efforts at Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania, Australia, September 22, 2020, photo: AAP Image/The Advocate Pool, Brodie Weeding/ Reuters
Whale rescue efforts at Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania, Australia, September 22, 2020, photo: AAP Image/The Advocate Pool, Brodie Weeding/ Reuters

Rescuers are trying to save around 180 pilot whales stuck on a sandbar off the remote west coast of the Australian island of Tasmania. So far, scientists estimated that 90 have already died. The pilot whales are trapped in very shallow water.

“We’ve rescued about 25 at the present time and escorted them out the channel and out to sea, and crews are continuing to work, so that number will increase before we get to the end of the day,” Parks and Wildlife regional manager Nic Deka told Reuters.

Though mass whale strandings occur relatively often in Tasmania, such a large group has not been seen in the area for more than a decade. The animals are only accessible by boat, limiting the number of rescuers who can reach them.

On Tuesday morning, around 40 government scientists, 20 police officers, and local fish farmers and volunteers were involved in the rescue operation. Experts said this was one of the most challenging rescue attempts they ever encountered.

Pilot whales are a species of oceanic dolphins that grow to seven meters (23 ft) long and weigh up to three tonnes. Drawing them back out to sea is a labor-intensive process that can include physically pushing the animals or using specialized tarpaulins and pontoons to drag them to deeper water.

Rescuers try to keep the whales upright to avoid disorientation.

Scientists said two large pods of long-finned pilot whales became stuck on sandbars in Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s sparsely populated west coast. Images from the scene showed hundreds of the large slick-black mammals manoeuvering for space in the shallow water.

Challenging task to save the animal
Government marine biologist Kris Carlyon said about a third of the 270 animals were dead by late Monday, and that rescuing survivors would be a challenging task likely to take several days.

“As far as we know, this was a natural event, so we can accept that we are going to lose some animals. This is such a tricky event, such a complex event, that any whale we save, we’re considering a real win,” Carlyon said.

The rainy weather is increasing the surviving chance of the remaining stranded pilot whales. “It’s pretty ugly for people on the ground, but as far as the whales go it’s ideal — it’s keeping them wet, it’s keeping them cool,” Carlyon said.

Carlyon said rescuers would still have to choose which whales to save, prioritizing the healthiest and most accessible.

“There’s always a risk when we refloat animals and take them out to sea, they will return and restrand. We have seen that in past occasions. We are hopeful that’s not going to be the case, but it wouldn’t be unexpected if some animals did restrand,” Carlyon added.

Notorious whale trap
Scientists said it was unclear what caused the latest stranding, but Carlyon suggested the pod may have gone off track after feeding close to the shoreline or by following one or two whales that strayed.

Karen Stockin, an expert in marine mammals at New Zealand’s Massey University, said Tasmania was a “particular hotspot” for pilot whale strandings in large pods.

“It seems to be a notorious whale trap… you do tend to get these mass stranding events there,” she told AFP.

Stockin said that while pilot whales were typically more resilient than other whale species, rescuers faced a race against the clock as the mammals can overheat, their muscles deteriorate and their organs become crushed outside their natural environment.

“Time is never your friend,” she said. “So, without a doubt, the more expedited rescue missions are, the more likely there is an increased (chance) of survival.”

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