Wildlife experts are racing against time to save 35 pilot whales stranded on a Tasmanian beach after nearly 200 of their relatives died in a mass stranding.
About 230 whales stranded at the entrance to Macquarie Harbor near Strachan on Tasmania’s west coast on Wednesday.
Tragically, Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service regional manager Brendan Clarke said only 35 whales survived the night. He blamed the exposed conditions.
“Unfortunately, we have a really high fatality rate in this particular case – it’s mostly due to the exposed conditions at Ocean Beach,” he said.
“The environmental conditions, the open west coast surf, definitely takes its toll on the animals.”
After a day spent sorting through the whales to determine which animals had the best chance of survival, rescuers swung into action on Thursday in an attempt to carry out their daring operation.
Mr Clarke said around 50 experts and experienced staff would be involved in the difficult mission, including volunteers from three local aquaculture organisations, state emergency services and parks staff.
“The main focus this morning is on the rescue and release of the surviving animals,” the regional head of operations reiterated.
The whales will be carefully rolled onto large whale mats and transported to a trailer that will be lined with mattresses for comfort.
A mechanical aid will help the crews to lift the whales in the trailer, which is usually accomplished solely by muscle and willpower. Chris Carlyon, operations manager for Tasmania’s Natural Resources and Environment Marine Conservation Program, said the device would make rescues more efficient.
“We’re really confident that it’s going to help speed things up a little bit and also make sure we’re dealing with fatigue,” he said.
“We have animals that are essentially high and dry on the sand. The weight of these animals can reach 2.5 tons. They are big and heavy.’
The pilot whales will then be sent to deeper waters where they will then be released.
A marine conservation program manager said there would be more whale casualties on Thursday as crews raced against the clock.
“I think it’s inevitable that we could lose a few more of these animals,” Mr Carlyon said.
“They were stuck for more than 24 hours. They are in a very dangerous and stressful place. They are not semi-floating.’
Rescuers are working hard throughout Thursday to “maximize success” and save as many whales as possible. Mr Carlyon said he was “optimistic” about the number of whales crews could save on Thursday.
“I was confident that we could do real damage to those 35 animals and start relocating the majority by today,” he said.
Both men admitted it was “difficult” to see the stranded whales and it was “difficult” to see the highly social and intelligent animals stranded, and said they would need to take action to prevent it from happening again.
“We are aware that some of these animals may make it ashore and so we will be keeping an eye on that,” Mr Clarke said.
The whales are kept moist and cool until they can be moved.
Experts have drawn many comparisons to the largest mass stranding of whales in Australian history, which occurred almost exactly two years ago.
In September 2020, about 450 pilot whales were stranded in the same area and 100 of them were rescued.
This rescue will be more difficult because the whales are not buoyant and the area is more exposed, but rescuers say the 2020 event was a “tremendous experience”.
“It’s coming together a lot faster and more expertly now,” Mr. Carlyon said.
He suggested that there could be so many banks in the area because the shallow water around Macquarie Heads could interfere with the whales’ echolocation system and create a “whale trap”.
Mr Clarke said Friday, Saturday and possibly Sunday would be spent recovering the whale carcasses and taking them to the deep ocean.
The mass stranding comes just days after 14 sperm whales died after washing ashore on King Island.
Originally published as Hundreds of pilot whales die on Tasmania’s west coast after mass stranding