About 230 pilot whales stranded themselves on a beach in Australia earlier this week, prompting a race to save the surviving animals before they perished.
When officials arrived at the scene, on the remote western coast of Tasmania, about half of the whales were already dead. But rescue teams worked quickly to tend to the survivors, keeping them wet with sheets and buckets to prevent them from overheating, reports the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
Pilot whales, which are actually one of the largest members of the dolphin family, grow to about 20 feet and weigh up to two tons—a size that can prove deadly when they’re lying on a beach, writes the New York Times’ Natasha Frost.
“Because they’re so heavy, their body weight will literally crush their organs,” Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist affiliated with Macquarie University in Australia, tells the publication. “Depending on if they’re upright or on the side, this will be compromising how they breathe and their lungs’ ability to function properly.”
On Wednesday, rescue teams moved 32 of the whales to deeper waters by lifting them off the beach with construction equipment and towing them by boat out to sea, writes James Dunlevie for the ABC. But overnight, about ten of the animals re-stranded themselves. Fewer had returned to the beach on Friday morning—which was a good sign—though one died while stranded and another five had to be euthanized, per the Times.
Despite their best efforts, rescue operations don’t always work, because the whales want to return to their pod, Pirotta tells the Associated Press.
“They might hear the... sounds that the others are making, or they’re just disoriented and, in this case, extremely stressed, and just probably so fatigued that they in some cases don’t know where they are,” she tells the publication. “They do have a very strong social system. These animals are closely bonded, and that’s why we have seen so many in this case, unfortunately.”
This event comes just two years after the biggest mass whale stranding in Australian history. In 2020, 470 pilot whales beached themselves in roughly the same area in Tasmania, per the Times. Officials were able to save about 110 of those whales.
Soon, the rescue team will begin the grisly task of disposing of the corpses, tweaking their process from what they did two years ago.
"Last time we did leave some carcasses in situ on Ocean Beach and were hoping for a natural decomposition. But that didn't occur in a satisfactory time frame," Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service incident controller Brendon Clark tells the ABC. This time, officials will drag the carcasses to sea.
It’s unclear exactly why the stranding happened, but scientists plan to analyze the bodies to see if they can figure it out.
"One theory [is] that they are potentially chasing prey," Kris Carlyon from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania, tells the ABC. "These guys do feed on squid. That could have brought them into shore… That will be part of the post-mortem investigation. We'll be looking at stomach contents, what these animals have been feeding on in the last few days. That may offer up some additional clues.”