Rescuers Save 130 Beached Pilot Whales in Western Australia After Mass Stranding

An additional 29 whales died, officials reported last week, while the reason behind the stranding remains unknown

160 pilot whales stranded themselves along western Australian shores on Thursday morning
160 pilot whales, mainly adult females with several young calves, stranded themsleves in shallow waters on Thursday morning in Western Australia. Parks and Wildlife Service, Western Australia via Facebook

Australian officials woke on Thursday morning to urgent reports of one of the marine world’s more mysterious and saddening phenomena: 160 long-finned pilot whales had become beached on the country’s western coast.

Laboring in water only inches deep across more than 1,600 feet of shoreline, the stranded whales—mainly adult females, with several younger calves—represented four different pods. Another pod of at least 20 whales was observed about a mile offshore, while another 110 of the animals lingered in shallow waters in between the two groups.

“My initial reaction seeing hundreds of whales all bunched [together] on the beach was just completely and utterly overwhelming,” Ian Wiese, chair of Geographe Marine Research who contributed to rescue efforts, tells CNN’s Teele Rebane, Heather Chen and Manveena Suri. “It was really, really chaotic.”

When marine biologists and rescue teams arrived at Toby Inlet near the town of Dunsborough, at least 26 of the stranded whales had already died.

Marine scientists and veterinarians work together to save a juvenile pilot whale that was orphaned as a result of Thursday's beaching.
Despite their best efforts, marine scientists and veterinarians could not save a juvenile pilot whale that was orphaned as a result of Thursday's beaching. Without its mother and pod, the young whale's survival was impossible. Parks and Wildlife Service, Western Australia via Facebook

“Unfortunately, the outcome for our pilot whales once they strand on the beach is generally not good,” Pia Courtis, a regional wildlife officer with the Western Australia Parks and Wildlife Service, tells Inside Edition. “We have high numbers of animals that end up dying.”

When whales are beached, rescuers must undertake a race against time. Out of water, the marine mammals’ organs can be crushed by their own body weight.

Marine biologists, rescue teams and local residents worked tirelessly together to keep the whales upright and clear their blowholes so the creatures could breathe. Over the course of several hours, officials from Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, veterinarians and other experts offered instructions for volunteers and checked the animals’ health as they tried to direct the whales back to sea.

Amazingly, in what has been deemed a partial success, rescuers returned 130 pilot whales to the ocean by the end of the day. Officials coordinated the flying of a spotter plane off the coast to observe if the animals were trying to return to the beach—which is common during beaching events—and as of Friday, they had found no evidence of any pods turning around.

“It’s been a very good story today, because normally with these sorts of strandings, you wind up with 100 whales beaching and five or six being saved,” Wiese tells Rod McGuirk of the Associated Press.

Australians race against time to rescue 150 stranded pilot whales

Still, despite these efforts, two more stranded whales died on Thursday, bringing the total to at least 28. Then, teams found a young whale calf at nearby Eagle Beach “in a compromised condition,” likely to have been orphaned the previous day, according to an update shared Friday on Facebook.

Veterinarians and scientists determined the calf had no chance of survival without its mother, and aerial monitoring of the whale pods at sea concluded that they were not turning around to come back for it. Later on Friday, the calf was euthanized by Parks and Wildlife Service officers “to avoid prolonging its suffering,” bringing the total loss of life to at least 29 whales.

Why whales beach themselves in large groups remains a mystery, though experts hypothesize the animals’ highly social behavior and emotional intelligence might play a role. When certain members of a pod are sick or in distress, others are quick to offer support.

“When they’re out at sea, in deep waters, there’s nothing that can disturb that care process, but if an injured whale ends up near shore, there will be a lot of hazards [for the pod] that come along and will get in the way,” Wiese tells CNN. “Echolocation doesn’t work properly, and before you know it, you’ve got a whole family [stranded].”

Hundreds of dead pilot whales line a Tasmanian beach in 2022 following mass beaching event in which nearly 200 died
In Tasmania in 2022, nearly 200 pilot whales died following a mass beaching event; around 30 whales were rescued. Glenn Nichols via Getty Images

Among the stranded whales was a newly born calf with its umbilical cord still attached, a potential factor driving the mass beaching event, he adds. Human-made noises at sea can disturb whales’ ability to navigate, and attempts to avoid predators such as orcas might also push them toward the shore.

Scientists took tissue samples from the pilot whales that died and will be testing them for disease or additional clues to what led to the stranding.

The recent local rescue efforts are one of the most successful since 1996, when 320 pilot whales beached themselves in Dunsborough, and rescuers helped all but 20 return to sea. But not all events have had such high success rates—last July, some 200 miles southeast of Dunsborough, 97 stranded pilot whales died across two days of rescue efforts. That same month, more than 50 pilot whales died after beaching in Scotland.

In September 2022, teams were able to rescue approximately 30 of a total 230 beached whales on the western coast of Tasmania, while just two years earlier, 110 of 470 beached whales were saved from the same area.

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