While a lucky humpback whale found its way back to sea almost two weeks after losing its way in a crocodile-infested river in northern Australia, efforts are being made to rescue as many as possible out of the estimated pod of nearly 500 pilot whales stranded in Australia’s southern island of Tasmania this past week.
As of now, marine rescue teams are able to save about 88 long-finned whales, while some 380 had died in the mass stranding, Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service said in a statement on Sept. 24.
The statement noted that the rescue of another 20 whales has been prioritized following an assessment in the morning.
The rescue ensued when around 270 whales were spotted on Monday on two sandbars and a beach near the west-coast town of Strahan. The Tasmanian authorities launched a mission on Tuesday to rescue the remaining pod after the experts ascertained that almost one-third of the 270-strong pod had died.
However, on Wednesday the rescue became even more challenging when they spotted nearly 200 more stranded and distressed whales, many of which are believed to be possibly dead; the discovery was made in Macquarie Harbour.
Nic Deka, regional manager of Tasmania’s parks and wildlife service, said in a statement on Wednesday that the rescue operation has been scaled up, with the number of volunteers increased and others on standby so that they are readily available whenever needed.
The statement said that a total of 470 whales became stranded in the Macquarie Harbour incident.
“At any point in time this number is really an estimate,” Deka said. “It is a complex site. Many of the whales are submerged and so we have made our best efforts to do the counts as we assess which animals are alive and which are dead—it is difficult.”
Deka said earlier this week that in Tasmania, whale strandings are not uncommon.
“Whale strandings of this scale are not unusual either, however, we have not had one of this level for the past decade,” he said.
Dr. Kris Carlyon, Parks and Wildlife Services marine biologist, said the rescue operation might take days and would be slow.
“There’s an element of reality too. This is such a complex event that any whale we save we are considering a real win. We are focussing [sic] on having as many survivors as we can,” Carlyon said on Tuesday.
Deka added: “Inevitably the longer the event goes on the higher the likelihood that the animals will perish if they can’t be released.”
On Wednesday, Deka said that the team is now planning on how to dispose of the dead whales, with their preference being to “dispose of the animals at sea.”
Deka said: “Our focus in the next few days will be to try to contain the spread of carcasses because as the whales start to decompose, they will start to bloat and float and with the tides they will drift. They will present a significant navigation hazard if we don’t contain them.
“We are getting really good assistance from the aquaculture industry in terms of collection and containment of the carcasses. They have been great to date in assisting with the rescue as well,” he added.
Deka noted that the aim is to remove the carcasses as quickly as possible, however, the process would take several days.