Tragedy has struck the shores of Tasmania’s Macquarie Harbor as the largest stranding event in Australia’s history saw 480 pilot whales beach themselves along the coast this week. At least 380 have now died with efforts from volunteers and conservationists returning 88 to the ocean, but just 20 of those still on the beach are expected to survive. The devastating loss of life marks one of the largest mass strandings on record globally.
Vets attended the scene at Macquarie Harbor to assess those animals still on the beach and the difficult decision was made to euthanize four of the long-finned pilot whales this morning, which have been on the sands since the pod was discovered on Monday, September 21. Long-finned pilot whales are more commonly seen in groups of 20 to 150 individuals but aggregations of over 1,000 whales have been spotted.
Nic Deka has been coordinating the rescue with Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service and will now get to work retrieving and removing the dead whales both on the sandbanks and in the water. Pilot whales can be as large as 6.7 meters (22 feet) long representing a significant navigational hazard for boats in the harbor as they decompose and float on the water’s surface. A 32-meter (105 foot) barge with a crane attached will arrive to tow the carcasses out to the open ocean where they will degrade naturally.
Of those that are still alive, few are expected to survive release and assessing the condition of so many animals has proven a mammoth task. “It is a complex site and many whales are submerged,” said Deka in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s difficult to assess which are alive and dead. But we have about 20 that we think have the strength to be released.”
The grim record-breaking event overtakes Australia's previous record, a stranding event at Dunsbrough in Western Australia in 1996, also involving long-finned pilot whales, which saw 320 mammals beach, and only 20 survive. The global record is held by New Zealand where 1,000 pilot whales became stranded back in 1918. It’s difficult to know the exact trigger for mass strandings, but anything from food to illness or sonar can drive whales into unfamiliar and treacherous territory where beaching is a risk.