Rescuers freed 25 of the 270 whales stranded on Tasmania’s west coast, with the state government confirming that around 90 of the marine mammals had already died.
A huge rescue effort began near Strahan in Macquarie Harbor on Tuesday morning, with 60 people and several boats trying to free marine mammals stranded on two sandbars and a beach.
Rescue coordinator, Parks and Wildlife Service regional director Nic Deka, told Guardian Australia of the arduous task ahead after seeing pilot whales for the first time from the air.
Deka said the first rescues of the morning involved staff and volunteers chest deep in the water.
“We have found a method that gives us the best chance of success,” he said. Rescuers put a large sling under the whale, then pull and coax the animal out of the sand.
“There comes a point where the whale becomes a little buoyant, and then we allow the boat to help the whale in the channel and the animal is then released.”
He said it was a 30 minute round trip for each animal as they had to be far enough away from other stranded whales that they didn’t just turn around and swim back.
“It’s just a matter of leading them. These animals were in reasonable shape. They tend to want to go back to the pod – they’re very social – so we need to keep them away enough.
By Tuesday afternoon, Deka’s team had rescued 25 whales.
Late Monday, Deka inspected the grounding from a helicopter. “It’s a little disturbing and scary to see this number of animals stuck and in trouble,” he said.
“My role is that of an incident controller and it was quite daunting as I started to get a feel for the task at hand.”
With around 90 animals already dead, Deka said they were starting to dispose of the carcasses as some were near areas used by the public.
Australia’s national science agency CSIRO was giving advice on ocean currents that could be used to move dead animals to the ocean. A landfill could also be used, but it was “not without problems,” he said.
Pilot whales can weigh well over a ton, some being about the weight of a small family car.
Deka said no dead animals had yet been moved as the goal was to free the survivors. The rescue effort will likely last for at least several days.
The west coast of Tasmania is exposed to changeable and wild weather conditions. A high tide was approaching and a low pressure system in the area over the next two days could push water levels in the harbor higher as well.
This could theoretically free some of the whales, Deka said, but the problem could be that they wouldn’t swim past Macquarie Heads and into the ocean.
He said, “The problem is they are returning to animals in distress. Our assessment is that if they are free, they are unlikely to leave without us providing them with assistance. “
The Tasmanian coastline and Macquarie Harbor have seen numerous whale strandings.
The rescue is coordinated by the state’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.
In addition to 40 department employees, 20 other volunteers also help, mainly from the port’s fish industry.
Deka added, “It is certainly a difficult task and you need people who are not only trained and knowledgeable in whale rescue, but also very competent in the water. They are pretty stoic individuals – we have some very experienced people involved.
“With these events, there is usually a mortality [of the animals] and it’s sad, but it’s not unknown [to the rescuers]. »
Dr Kris Carlyon, of the department’s marine conservation program conducting the rescue, said it was unclear why strandings occurred.
He told reporters on Tuesday morning: “We had several massive strandings of pilot whales and sperm whales at a similar location.
“They may be drawn to this area by foraging near the coast, but it could just be a mishap of one or two animals.
“Pilot whales are such a social species that they might attract the rest of the group, but we just don’t know that.
Carlyon said the grounding was the “most delicate” he had faced in his 12 years with the program, tides, sand, weather and scale making the rescue effort a challenge.