Nearly 200 stranded pilot whales die on Tasmanian beach but dozens saved and returned to sea

Nearly 200 stranded pilot whales die on Tasmanian beach but dozens saved and returned to sea

Nearly 200 stranded pilot whales have died on Tasmania’s west coast, but rescuers successfully returned 32 animals to deeper water on Thursday.

A pod of about 230 pilot whales became stranded on Wednesday on Ocean Beach, west of Strahan. Some were also stranded on a sand flat inside Macquarie Harbour, south of the town.

Marine conservationists launched a rescue mission on Wednesday and efforts continued throughout Thursday.

“Dozens of whales have been saved and taken to deeper water,” said Sam Gerrity, of Southwest Expeditions, who has been involved in the rescue and release effort.

On Thursday morning, authorities said only 35 of the 230 cetaceans on Ocean Beach had survived. But the incident controller, Brendon Clark, said on Thursday afternoon that 32 of those 35 animals had been rescued.

“We still have three alive on the northern end beach, but because of access restrictions, predominantly tidal influences, we just haven’t been able to access those three animals safely today, but they’ll be our priority in the morning,” Clark said.

“We’ll be transitioning to carcass recovery and disposal operations throughout the course of the day.”

Clark said the exposed conditions on Ocean Beach contributed to the high death rate and said authorities were limiting volunteer involvement only to those with previous marine wildlife training or experience.

“We appreciate all of the offers and all of the goodwill that is expressed from the community. It’s more a matter of having a safe working environment and skilled and trained personnel.”

The environmental conditions on Ocean Beach were much more difficult compared to the relative shelter of the estuary, where another mass stranding event occurred two years ago, Clark said.

In 2020, 470 long-finned pilot whales were found beached on sandbars and trapped inside the heads of Macquarie Harbour – the worst mass stranding on record in Australia. “The animals last time were pretty well half-floating,” Clark said. “They had some buoyancy.”

Authorities have asked vessel operators within Macquarie Harbour to monitor for potential strandings at other sites. “We will be doing patrols ourselves both via air reconnaissance and also harbour sweeps via vessel,” Clark added.

“We are conscious that some of them may re-beach themselves and so we’ll be monitoring that,” Clark said. “There are reports of some whales within the harbour precinct, but thankfully, they still seem to be free swimming.”

The mass stranding is the second to occur in days. At King Island, in Bass Strait, 14 dead sperm whales, all juvenile males, washed ashore on Monday.

“It’s quite alarming that these animals have stranded … at a similar time,” said Dr Olaf Meynecke, of Griffith University’s coastal and marine research centre, who said the two events were probably not a coincidence.

“They’re feeding on similar prey, [such as] giant squid off the continental shelf”.

This article by Donna Lu was first published by The Guardian on 22 September 2022. Lead Image: Exposed conditions on Ocean Beach have contributed to the death of over 200 pilot whales after a mass stranding event on Tasmania’s western coast. Photograph: Huon Aquaculture/Getty Images.

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