HOBART, Australia – A day after 230 whales were found stranded on the wild and remote west coast of Australia’s island state of Tasmania, only 35 were still alive despite rescue efforts set to resume Thursday.
Half of the pod of pilot whales stranded in Macquarie Harbor on Wednesday are believed to be still alive, Tasmania’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment said.
But strong surf took its toll overnight, Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service manager Brendon Clark said.
“Yesterday we triaged the animals as part of a preliminary assessment and identified those animals that had the best chance of survival out of the approximately 230 stranded. Today’s focus will be on rescue and relief operations,” Clark told reporters in nearby Strahan.
“We have approximately 35 surviving animals on the beach … and the primary focus this morning will be on rescuing and releasing those animals,” Clark added.
The whales surfaced two years to the day after the largest mass stranding in Australian history was discovered in the same harbour.
About 470 long-tailed pilot whales were found on September 21, 2020, stranded on the sandbanks. After a week-long effort, 111 of those 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 more difficult.
“Last time they were actually in the harbor and it’s pretty calm and we could kind of deal with them there and we could get the boats to them,” Kringle said.
“But just on the beach, you just can’t get a boat in there – it’s too shallow, too rough. My thoughts would be to try to get them into the vehicle if we can’t float them out,” 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 location, reappearing in terms of stranding in the same place may provide some kind of indication that there might be something ecological here,” Pirotta said.
David Midson, chief executive of West Coast Council, urged people to stay away.
“Whales are a protected species, even when they have died, and it is an offense to disturb a carcass,” the environment department said.
Fourteen sperm whales were discovered on Monday afternoon on King Island, part of the state of Tasmania in Bass Strait between Melbourne and Tasmania’s north coast.
Griffith University marine scientist Olaf Meynecke said it was unusual for sperm whales to wash ashore. He said warmer temperatures could also change ocean currents and shift the whales’ traditional diet.
“They will go to different areas and look for different food sources,” Meynecke said. “When they do that, they’re not in the best physical condition because they could starve to death, so that can lead them to take more risks and maybe move closer to shore.”
The pilot whale is known to run aground in mass numbers, for reasons that are not fully understood.