Australian rescuers have battled to refloat the last surviving pilot whales from a mass stranding that killed nearly 200 of the animals on a beach in remote western Tasmania.
Fewer than 10 of the black mammals were still alive on Friday on Ocean Beach, north of Macquarie Harbour, state wildlife services said.
Rescuers had successfully refloated and released 32 pilot whales into deep water outside Macquarie Harbour on Thursday, though several of the animals were re-stranded on the beach overnight, the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service said in a statement on Friday.
“The aim is to refloat and release the remaining live whales today,” the service said, adding that cold and rainy conditions on the beach were helping to “keep the animals comfortable”.
“Once the rescue stage is complete, the team will focus on the removal and disposal of about 200 deceased whales,” the service said.
Under drizzle on Friday, marine wildlife experts had begun to wind down the days-long rescue operation that started after the large pod of pilot whales became stranded on the beach on Wednesday.
Brendon Clark, incident controller with the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, said three whales had yet to be reached because of their remote location on the shore and the difficult tidal conditions.
“The priority still is the rescue and release of those remaining animals and any others that we identify that re-strand,” he said.
Wildlife workers used a forklift to drag the carcasses of the deceased whales to a collection point on the beach. The animals will be disposed of at sea. Left in shallow waters or on the beach, the carcasses could attract sharks and can also carry disease.
“It’s extremely sad to see these beautiful, intelligent animals on land where they are not to be,” Depha Miedecke, general manager of strategy at Tasmanian marine farming company Petuna Aquaculture, told AFP.
“We will see it right through to the end to also removing, unfortunately, the whales that have not made it,” she said.
Two years ago, Macquarie Harbour was the scene of the country’s largest-ever mass stranding, involving about 470 long-finned pilot whales who were found stuck on sandbars.
After a weeklong effort, 111 of those whales were rescued but the rest died despite the efforts of dozens of volunteers who toiled for days in Tasmania’s freezing waters to free them.
The entrance to the harbour is a notoriously shallow and dangerous channel known as Hell’s Gate.
Scientists still do not fully understand why mass strandings occur. Some have suggested pods go off track after feeding too close to shore.
Pilot whales – which can grow to more than six metres (20 feet) long – are also highly sociable, so they may follow pod-mates who stray into danger.
Others believe gently sloping beaches like those found in Tasmania confuse the whales’ sonar, making them think they are in open waters.
The latest stranding came days after a dozen young male sperm whales were reported dead in a separate mass stranding on King Island – between Tasmania and the Australian mainland.