An estimated 470 pilot whales stranded along the coast and two sandbars off Tasmania’s west coast last week in what is believed to be the largest mass stranding event in Australian history.
As of Saturday, about 360 whales had died, reported Gua Damien New York Time, but a team of more than 60 workers was able to rescue 108 whales at the end of the five-day rescue effort. Now, the clean-up efforts began when the team locked the bodies using a water boom until they could be properly disposed of in the sea.
“The collection and disposal is carried out with the help of an aquaculture company whose equipment and expertise at the port is essential for timely and effective results,” Rob Buck, manager of the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, said in a statement.
Hundreds of whales were found Monday, September 21 on Tasmania’s west coast, in an area known as Macquarie Heads. On Wednesday, an additional 200 whales were found further into the port.
Kris Carlyon, a marine biologist leading the Tasmanian government’s efforts to save the remaining whales, said at a press conference on Tuesday that the team was focused on rescuing survivors before turning to dead whales.
“This is a natural event, so we can accept that we’re going to lose some of the animals,” said Carlyon, Graham Readfearn’s report for Guardian. “It’s a really complicated event… that for every whale we save, we’re considering a real win. We are focused on having as many survivors as possible. “
Pilot whales can grow up to 25 feet long and weigh up to three tons, which complicates rescue efforts. Rescuers managed to put a large sash under the whale and then slowly pull the creature from the sand, Tasmania Park regional manager Nic Deka told Guardian. Each trip took about 30 minutes per animal, as the team needed to take the whale far enough away from its peers so that it wouldn’t try to turn around and swim back.
“It’s just a matter of directing them. These animals have been in a normal condition. They tend to want to return to the pods – they are very social – so we have to keep them from a considerable distance, “Deka told Guardian.
Whales’ problems don’t end when they reach the open ocean, marine scientist Vanessa Pirotta told Australian broadcaster A B C. “They want to go back to the pod. They may hear acoustic vocalizations from the sounds other people make, or they are just disoriented, and in this case very stressed, and may be so tired that in some cases they don’t know where they are, “says Pirotta.
Mass stranding whales are relatively common, but scientists don’t yet know exactly why they occur, as Brigit Katz noted Smithsonian Magazine last year. Whales are most inclined to shore on shallow, sloping beaches made of soft sediment. Some strandings may result from miscommunication: sonar sounds from human activity or even solar storms can interfere with whales’ navigation or spur them away from strange sounds quickly.
Toothed whales, like pilot whales, are more likely to be involved in mass strandings because they travel in large groups of up to 1,000 members, reports Laurel Wamsley to NPR. These closely entwined social dynamics can produce “a persistence to keep the group together” – so if a matriarch of pods mistakenly swims toward dangerous shallow water, the entire pod can follow, according to American Cetacean Society.
Once whales washed ashore, they became exhausted and stressed, which made it difficult to break free, reports New York Time.
This stretch of coast in Tasmania is known as a hotspot for stranding. In 1935, the last time a pilot whale stranded this size was in Tasmania, 294 whales washed ashore. As Time Reports indicate this is the first mass stranding event involving more than 50 pilot whales since 2009.
Elsewhere in the region, in 2017, more than 400 pilot whales stranded along the shallow waters of New Zealand’s Farewell Spit, as Lauren Young reports. Smithsonian Magazine at the time.
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