A school of whales were found stranded in Hamelin Bay, on the West Australian coast, in the early hours on Friday. According to the latest update, only seven of the 150 short-finned pilot whales are still alive. A team of veterinarians, wildlife officials, and volunteers have been involved in the rescue effort, while the beach remains closed to visitors and authorities have raised a shark alert for the area.
The Western Australian Parks and Wildlife Service has announced that preparations are currently afoot to move the surviving whales to deeper water come nightfall. A rough combination of bad weather, stormy seas, rocky beach terrain, and the location of the dead whales surrounding the surviving whales has so far hindered the process.
“Rescue operations will be hampered by deteriorating, weather conditions and we need to ensure the safety of everyone involved before we move the whales,” Incident Controller Jeremy Chick said in a statement.
“Once we have moved the whales out we will monitor the situation closely as it is possible the whales will come back into shore and re-strand. This has often been the case in previous mass strandings,” he later added.
The short-finned pilot whale, a cousin to the long-finned pilot whale, is a mid-size brownish grey to black crustacean with a bulbous head. They are so-named because of their relatively short flippers, which measure less than 18 percent of their body length.
Highly social creatures, they tend to travel in pods of 15 to 50 individuals, making this particular mass stranding of more than 150 whales very unusual even if it is not quite the largest ever seen. In 1996, 320 long-finned pilot whales were found washed up in Dunsborough, Western Australia, the Parks and Wildlife Service reports.
While it is still not really understood why crustaceans engage in this suicide-like behavior, there are various possible explanations, ranging from human activities like naval exercises to environmental imbalances such as low food stocks, temperature changes, and ocean pollution. There is even a strong case to suggest that beaching is an altruistic gesture, with healthy whales stranding to stay close to their sick or injured friends.
As for the whales who did not make it this time around, the department is currently working with the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River to remove the bodies and extract DNA samples to help wildlife experts understand what exactly it is that causes whales to engage in this bizarre and deadly behavior.