The rescue mission to save the stranded pod continues

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A delicate rescue mission to save a pod of stranded pilot whales is underway on Tasmania’s west coast, with the state’s Parks and Wildlife Service revealing only 35 animals have survived the stranding.

A photo showing the stranded pilot whales on 21 September 2022. Photo: Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania.
A photo showing the stranded pilot whales on 21 September 2022. Photo: Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania. (NRE)

Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service Regional Operations Manager and Incident Controller Brendon Clark said rescue and release would begin today.

“We triaged the animals yesterday as part of the preliminary assessment and we identified the animals that had the best chance of survival out of the 230 or so that were stranded,” Clark said.

“Today’s focus will be on rescue and extrication operations.

“We have approximately 35 surviving animals out on the beach.

“The primary focus this morning will be on the rescue and release of these animals.”

Clarke added that powerful surf took a toll on the pod overnight.

“(But) unfortunately we’ve had a high mortality rate on this particular stranding, largely due to the exposed conditions at Ocean Beach,” he said.

“The surf out there on the exposed west coast is definitely taking its toll on the animals.”

Wildlife Biologist and Operations Manager for the stranding, Dr. Kris Carlyon, said it was “inevitable” more animals would be lost today.

Hundreds of pilot whales have been stranded at Macquarie Harbor on Tasmania's west coast in a mass stranding event.
Hundreds of pilot whales have been stranded at Macquarie Harbor on Tasmania’s west coast in a mass stranding event. (Photo by Huon Aquaculture via Getty Images)

“It is inevitable that we may lose some more. They have been stranded for over 24 hours,” Carlyon said.

“It’s a much more challenging environment.

“The priority is to get them stabilized, upright, cool and wet.

“We’ve got the team and strategy in place now to maximize success and we’ll work hard all day to save as many as possible.”

One of the challenges of the rescue is that the animals are not semi-floating like the 2020 incident, and each animal can weigh up to 2.5 tons.

Whales are seen beached along the coastline on September 21, 2022 in Strahan, Australia.  Hundreds of pilot whales have been stranded at Macquarie Harbor on Tasmania's west coast in a mass stranding event.
About half of the animals are reported to be alive.. (Huon Aquaculture via Getty Images)
“It’s a different scenario, both for the animals, but what’s possible in terms of rescue,” Carlyon said.

“The last time we didn’t have to do too much heavy lifting of animals, they were supported by the water.

“This time we have animals that are high and dry on the sand.

“They’re big, they’re heavy, and we want to make sure our staff and volunteers are kept safe.”

Carlyon said a telehandler has been donated to the rescue by an aquaculture company.

This mechanical helper helps to lift the animals.

“It’s not something we’ve used before,” he said.

“But we’ll give it a shot. We’re confident this will speed things up a bit.”

From there, the animals will be moved by vessel through Macquarie Heads and into deep, open water to reduce the risk of re-stranding.

‘What’s happening’: Expert shares theories on mass strandings

Postmortems will be carried out on some of the dead whales today to try to determine what went wrong.

Carlyon offered one theory as to why Macquarie Harbor has become a stranding hotspot.

He hypothesized that the animals’ echolocation navigation may be thrown off by the shallow water, which is dotted with sandbars.

Members of a rescue team stand with a whale on a sandbar during the 2020 stranding event near Strahan, Australia. (Brodie Weeding)

“Clearly there is something about this environment that means it acts as a natural whale trap,” he said.

“We have seen several stranding events at this particular location, both with pilot whales and other species such as dolphins.

“We have some theories about this gently sloping shallow beach.”

Wildlife Scientist Dr. Vanessa Pirotta told Today experts are still in the dark about what causes whale strandings.

She said the Tasmanian incidents are “unusual”.

“We simply don’t know. Whale stranding is a mystery,” she said this morning.

One of 14 dead sperm whales wash up on a beach at King Island, north of Tasmania, Australia, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. The whales were spotted Monday afternoon on King Island, part of the state of Tasmania in the Bass Strait between Melbourne and Tasmania north coast, the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment said in a statement.  (Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania via AP)
One of 14 dead sperm whales wash up on a beach at King Island, north of Tasmania, Australia, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. The whales were spotted Monday afternoon on King Island, part of the state of Tasmania in the Bass Strait between Melbourne and Tasmania north coast, the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment said in a statement. (Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania via AP) (AP)

“If we knew why and when they would happen, we would try to prevent them, but we don’t.

“The fact that this stranding yesterday occurred on the same day as the same stranding two years ago with the same species is interesting.

“Also the fact that there were 14 sperm whales in a similar location stranded the day before that – what’s going on?”

Pirotta said she has several theories about what may have happened.

These include mis-navigation, a sick whale and the joining of different pilot groups.

“It will be interesting to see if any of the animals that were refloated (in 2020), which were about 100 from over 400 stranded, may have resurfaced in this case,” she said.

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