Hundreds of pilot whales die in record mass stranding in Australia



The majority of a 470-strong pod of pilot whales found stranded off Australia’s remote southern coast has died, officials said on Wednesday, as rescuers struggled in freezing waters and fading light to free those still alive.

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

After two days of a difficult and dangerous rescue attempt, state marine scientists said at least 380 of the long-finned pilot whales had died.

In this image made from aerial video shows numerous stranded whales along the coastline Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, near the remote west coast town of Strahan on the island state of Tasmania, Australia. More pilot whales were found stranded on an Australian coast Wednesday, raising the estimated total to almost 500 in the largest mass stranding ever recorded in the country. (Australian Broadcast Corporation via AP)

By late Wednesday, around fifty of the mammals were freed but experts said there was a high likelihood they would return as many did during the rescue attempt a day earlier, creating an exhausting loop for rescuers who cannot work through the night.

The outlook for the remaining 30 stranded and still alive pilot whales, a species of oceanic dolphin that grow to 7 metres (23 ft) long and can weigh up to 3 tonnes, was bleak.

“As time goes on, they do become fatigued and their chance of survival reduces,” Nic Deka, Parks and Wildlife Service incident controller said. “We do expect to rescue more but increasingly our focus is what do with the carcasses.”

In this Sept. 22, 2020, file photo, members of a rescue crew stand with a whale on a sand bar near Strahan, Australia. More pilot whales were found stranded on an Australian coast Wednesday, Sept. 23, raising the total to almost 500 in the largest mass stranding ever recorded in the island state of Tasmania. Authorities have been working to rescue survivors among an estimated 270 whales found on Monday on a beach and two sand bars near the remote west coast town of Strahan. (Brodie Weeding/Pool Photo via AP)

The refloating process involves as many as four or five people per whale wading waist-deep in freezing water, attaching slings to the animals so they can be guided out of the harbor by a boat.

The stranding, about 200 kms (120 miles) northwest of the state capital Hobart, is the biggest on record in modern Australia and one of the largest in the world, drawing attention to a natural phenomenon that remains a mystery to scientists.

“It’s certainly a major event and of great concern when we potentially lose that many whales out of a stranding event,” said Peter Harrison, a professor at the Southern Cross University Whale Research Group.

“Quite often we only get to really see them when there are bad outcomes, such as this stranding event. We absolutely need some more investment in research to understand these whales in Australian waters.”

In 1996, 320 pilot whales washed up on the coast of Western Australia, in what was then reported to be the country’s biggest mass stranding. About 600 pilot whales beached in nearby New Zealand in 2017.

A dead pilot whale calf lies on the beach in Macquarie Heads, Tasmania, Australia September 22,2020 in this picture obtained from social media. (BILAL RASHID via REUTERS)

 




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