Tasmania: why pilot whales are dying in Australia - are more whales stranded, how many have been saved?

More than 200 whales have been found beached in Australia just two days after 14 whales washed up dead in another area of country

Rescue efforts are continuing to save a number of pilot whales which have become stranded on an Australian beach and harbour.

Marine conservationists have been attempting to save the creatures since they became stuck on land on Wednesday 21 September.

Sadly, a number of the whales have already died and some remain stranded.

This comes just two days after 14 dead sperm whales were discovered on Monday afternoon (19 September) beached on King Island in Bass Strait between the Australian mainland and Tasmania.

The pilot whales were also discovered two years to the day after the largest mass-stranding in Australia’s history was discovered in the same harbour.

About 470 long-finned pilot whales were found stuck on sandbars on 21 September 2020. After a week-long effort, 111 were rescued but the rest died.

So, just how did the whales become stuck, how many were there and how many have now been saved?

Here’s what you need to know.

Marine conservationists have launched a rescue mission after 230 pilot whales became stuck on land in Australia. The image is from a 2020 rescue mission from whales became beached in another area of the country.

How did the whales become stuck?

A pod of about 230 pilot whales became stranded on Ocean Beach, west of Strahan, Australia, on Wednesday 21 September.

Some were also stranded on a sand flat inside Macquarie Harbour, south of the town.

The entrance to the harbour is a notoriously shallow and dangerous channel known as Hell’s Gate.

Marine conservationists launched a rescue mission yesterday shortly after the animals became stuck on land, and that has continued throughout today (Thursday 22 September).

Local salmon farmer Linton Kringle said the challenge was difficult because the whales were in shallower and more exposed waters.

The pilot whale is notorious for stranding in mass numbers, for reasons that are not known.

How many whales have died?

Sadly, almost 200 of the whales who became stranded have died.

Half the pod of pilot whales who had been found had been presumed on Wednesday 21 September to still be alive, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania said.

But Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service manager Brendon Clark said that only 35 survived the pounding surf overnight.

He added that the exposed conditions on Ocean Beach contributed to the high death rate.

Marine Conservation Programme biologist Kris Carlyon said the dead whales would be tested to see if there were toxins in their systems that might explain the disaster.

He told local reporters: “These mass stranding events are typically the result of accidental sort of coming to shore, and that’s through a whole host of reasons.”

How many whales have been saved?

Wildlife experts have rescued 32 of the whales.

Brendan Clark told local reporters: “Of the 35 that were remaining alive this morning, we’ve managed to refloat, rescue and release 32 of those animals, and so that’s a terrific result.”

How many whales are still stranded?

Three pilot whales are still stranded, and it is hoped they will be rescued tomorrow (Friday 23 September).

Brendan Clark told local reporters: “We still have three alive on the far northern end of Ocean Beach, but because of access restrictions, predominantly tidal influences, we just haven’t been able to access those three animals safely today. But they’ll be our priority in the morning (Friday 23 September).

Is there a link between the whales that have been beached?

Experts believe there is lilley to be a link between the sperm whales becoming stranded on Monday and the pilot whales becoming stranded on Thursday.

Dr Olaf Meynecke, of Griffith University’s coastal and marine research centre said:  “It’s quite alarming that these animals have stranded at a similar time”.

He added that the two events were probably not a coincidence as they have a similar diet.

“They’re feeding on similar prey, [such as] giant squid off the continental shelf.”