HOBART, Australia – A day after 230 whales were stranded on the wild and remote west coast of Australia’s island state of Tasmania, only 35 were still alive despite continued rescue efforts on Thursday.
Half a pod of pilot whales stranded in Macquarie Harbor were believed to be alive on Wednesday, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania said.
But Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service manager Brendan Clark said the pounding surf had taken its toll overnight.
“As part of the initial assessment we triaged the animals yesterday and we identified the animals that had the best chance of survival for the approximately 230 people who were trapped. Today’s focus will be on rescue and relief operations,” Clarke told reporters in nearby Strahan.
“We found about 35 live animals on the beach … and the primary focus this morning will be on the rescue and release of those animals,” Clark added.
The whales have been beached for two years since the day after the largest mass stranding in Australian history was discovered in the same harbour.
On September 21, 2020, approximately 470 long-finned pilot whales were found stranded on sandbars. After a week-long effort, 111 whales were rescued but the rest died.
The entrance to the harbor is a notoriously shallow and dangerous channel known as Hell’s Gate.
Local salmon farmer Linton Kringle helped with the 2020 rescue effort and said the latest challenge will be even tougher.
“Last time they were actually in the harbor and it was pretty calm and we could deal with them there and we could get the boats to them,” Kringle said.
“But just on the beach, you can’t get a boat out there — it’s too shallow, too rough. My thinking is if we can’t swim them out, try to get them in the car,” Kringle added.
Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist specializing in marine mammals, said it was too early to explain why the stranding occurred.
“The fact that we’ve seen similar species at the same time, in the same place, that re-occurrence in being stuck in the same place might kind of indicate that there might be something ecological here,” Pirotta said.
David Midson, general manager of West Coast Council municipalities, urged people to stay clear.
“Whales are a protected species, even once dead, and it is an offense to interfere with a carcass,” the Environment Department said.
Fourteen sperm whales were discovered on Monday afternoon on King Island, part of the state of Tasmania, in the Bass Strait between Melbourne and Tasmania’s north coast.
Griffith University marine scientist Olaf Meneke said it was unusual for sperm whales to wash ashore. He said warmer temperatures could also alter ocean currents and displace the whales’ traditional food.
“They will go to different areas and search for different food sources,” Meinecke said. “When they do that they’re not in the best physical condition because they can be hungry, so it makes them take more risks and maybe get closer to shore.”
Pilot whales are notorious for being stuck in mass numbers, for reasons that are not fully understood.