Sri Lanka’s navy and a band of volunteers from nearby villages have managed to rescue 120 pilot whales that became stranded in the country’s biggest mass beaching, but at least two injured animals were found dead, officials said.
Sailors from the navy and the coastguard joined local volunteers and had pushed back at least 120 whales by dawn on Tuesday after a gruelling overnight rescue, navy spokesman Indika de Silva said.
The school of short-finned pilot whales began coming ashore at Panadura, 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of Colombo, on Monday afternoon in the biggest-ever mass stranding of whales on the island.
“We used our small inshore patrol craft to pull the whales one by one back into deeper waters,” de Silva told the AFP news agency. “Sadly, two whales have died of the injuries sustained when they beached.”
Local authorities were braced for mass deaths as seen in Tasmania in September when about 470 pilot whales beached. Despite days of rescue efforts on the Australian island, only about 110 of them could be saved.
Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) confirmed that Panadura saw the largest single pod of whales stranded in the South Asian country.
“It is very unusual for such a large number to reach our shores,” said MEPA chief Dharshani Lahandapura, adding that the cause of the stranding was not known.
“We think this is similar to the mass stranding in Tasmania in September.”
Pilot whales – which can grow up to six metres (20 feet) in length and weigh as much as a tonne — are highly social animals.
The causes of mass strandings remain unknown although scientists have been studying the phenomenon for decades.