Australian rescuers start euthanizing beached pilot whales

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

Australian rescuers started euthanizing some surviving whales from a mass stranding on Thursday. Most of the pod of 470 pilot whales have already died in the shallow water.

A crew of around 60 conservationists and expert volunteers have spent days in the chilly waters of Macquarie Harbour, surrounded by the anguishing cries of dying whales.

“It is emotional,” said rescuer Sam Thalmann. “There are animals swimming around, they are vocalizing. We can see the bonds and the pairings within them.”

Pilot whales are highly social. Some animals have resisted rescue or tried to return to the pod after being freed, becoming beached for a second time.

Their distress level is so high that authorities said they had to carry out mercy killings of at least four whales. “Those four whales were euthanized earlier today,” using firearms and specialist ammunition, said Tasmanian environment department marine biologist Kris Carlyon.

The group, which is the biggest beaching in the country’s modern history, was first spotted on a wide sandbank during an aerial observation of Macquarie Harbour in Tasmania state on Monday.

“We still have a few more live animals that we think are going to be viable to move,” said Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife regional manager Nic Deka, praising the hard “yakka” (work) of rescuers who will continue until nightfall and into Friday.

The crews are now focusing efforts on a group of 20-25 partially submerged whales, using boats fitted with special slings to guide them back to the open ocean.

Burial at sea
But, increasingly, attention is turning to how to safely dispose of the carcasses of the nearly 400 whales that have already died. “Our preference is for disposal at sea. We’re still taking expert advice about where exactly the drop-off point may be,” said Deka.

A resident said the local community has been devastated by witnessing scenes of such anguish. “You could see that they were obviously suffering,” the resident, named Monique, told AFP.

“On the beach, they were still… puffing, flipping about and you couldn’t really do much to help them.”

Cause of mass stranding
The causes of mass strandings remain unknown despite scientists studying the phenomenon for decades. Some researchers have suggested the pilot whales may have gone off track after being attracted by food close to the shoreline, or by following one or two members of the pod that strayed.

Olaf Meynecke, a whale researcher at Australia’s Griffith University, said pilot whales use sophisticated sonar to find prey and for orientation, so some theories link strandings to changes in electromagnetic fields.

“These changes can be caused by solar storms or earthquakes (seismic activities), but there is also a strong connection between active sonar, for example naval sonar, and dolphin strandings including pilot whales,” Meynecke said.

Active sonar, the transmission equipment used on some ships to assist with navigation, is damaging to the health and lives of some marine mammals.

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