Nearly 380 pilot whales have been confirmed dead off the coast of Tasmania as rescuers fight to save the few survivors in one of the world’s largest mass strandings.
Authorities have confirmed that around 470 of the sea animals were discovered on Wednesday morning roughly five kilometers south of the original stranding site at Macquarie Harbour, the largest in the country’s history.
Although 50 whales were successfully rescued and sent to the open ocean, the remaining 30 animals are still trapped on a tiny beach off Tasmania’s west coast.
The search was initially initiated on Monday when 270 people were spotted struggling in shallow water.
Rescue teams are now working against the clock to save the whales, with Parks and Wildlife regional manager Nic Deka admitting that time is of the essence.
‘I would think that we will migrate from rescue to extraction and disposal… we’re simply examining options at the moment,’ he told the ABC.
The ‘ugly’ conditions, such as chilly temperatures and rain, are impeding rescue operations, while Carlyon said that the weather will help the whales survive longer by keeping them wet and cool.
Dehydration is the leading cause of death for beached whales. The animals have a thick coating of blubber that keeps them warm in deep water but leads them to overheat quickly on the surface.
A stranded whale may also be crushed to death by their own weight if there is no water to support them, or they may drown if their blowholes are covered if they are stranded in deep sea.
All of the whales must be accessed by boat, restricting the number that may be worked on at one time, and rescuers must work in groups to avoid hypothermia.
They are also contending with Macquarie Harbour’s unique tides, which are determined by barometric pressure.
According to Kris Carlyon, a government marine biologist, a team of roughly 60 rescuers, including local fishermen and volunteers, is being forced to ‘triage’ the whales, working to free those in the best condition and easiest to reach first.
Workers are dragging the animals off the sandbar with boats equipped with slings, and teams of people in the water are guiding the creatures back into the ocean.
Though mass whale strandings are common in Tasmania, such a massive bunch has not been spotted in the area in over a decade.
Scientists believe the creatures, which were observed from the air on Monday, are from two pods totaling approximately 470 individuals.
The biggest obstacle once the whales are relocated to deeper water, according to Carlyon, will be herding the social creatures out of the sandbar-riddled harbour and back into the wide ocean.
Scientists were unsure what caused the latest stranding, but Carlyon speculated that the pod may have become disoriented after grazing close to the shoreline or by following one or two straying whales.
Karen Stockin, a marine mammal expert at Massey University in New Zealand, said Tasmania was a “special hotspot” for pilot whale strandings in huge pods.
‘It appears to be a legendary whale trap… you do get these big stranding episodes there,’ she explained to AFP.
While pilot whales are often more hardy than other whale species, rescuers face a race against time since the mammals can overheat, their muscles degrade, and their organs become crushed outside of their normal environment, according to Stockin.
‘Time is never on your side,’ she replied. ‘Without a doubt, the more expedited rescue missions are, the greater the likelihood of survival.’
The head of Tasmania’s Australian Marine Mammal Centre, Mike Double, said it was “tragic” that such a “large” pod had become trapped, but that other whales have previously been saved from the same spot.
‘The state team in charge of reacting is extremely experienced, and they will work tirelessly to achieve the greatest possible outcome,’ he said.
The majority of a 30-strong group found dead on a nearby beach on Monday, and about 60 additional whales on the sandbars are believed to have died since then.
The disposal of that many whale remains, according to James Tucker of the Marine Science Centre at Southern Cross University in New South Wales, will be a “massive operation.”
The whale carcasses can be disposed of in four ways: pulling them out to sea, burying them, allowing them to rot, or dumping them at a waste management facility.
Allowing the remains to rot naturally can be dangerous since they attract sharks.