Hundreds of whales beached in 2nd mass stranding event to hit Australia this week

WARNING: Video contains content that may be disturbing to some viewers. Discretion is advised. Marine conservation experts headed to the Australian state of Tasmania on Wednesday to attempt to rescue a pod of approximately 230 whales, with officials saying only half appeared to be alive.

More than 200 whales were found beached on Tasmania’s west coast on Wednesday in a disturbing mass stranding event that, unfortunately, is not the first of its kind.

The stranded animals appear to be a pod of about 230 pilot whales, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania. They were found stranded on Ocean Beach in Macquarie Harbour.

About half of the whales are presumed to still be alive and a team from the Marine Conservation Program was sent to the area with whale rescue gear, the department added. Staff from the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service and Tasmanian police have also been deployed to assist in the rescue efforts.

An aerial view of a mass whale stranding near Macquarie Heads on September 21, 2022 in Strahan, Australia.

An aerial view of a mass whale stranding near Macquarie Heads on Sept. 21, 2022 in Strahan, Australia.

NRE Tas via Getty Images

David Midson, general manager of the West Coast Council, urged the public to stay away from the beach, even if they were intending to help with the rescue efforts.

“The most important thing, if you’re not invited by parks or one of the organizations helping, is to stay away. Having extra people can really hinder how they go about their rescue efforts,” Midson said.

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Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania said that “If it is determined there is a need for help from the general public, a request will be made through various avenues.”

This troubling mass stranding event comes merely two days after the carcasses of 14 young sperm whales were found washed up on King Island, which is also part of the state of Tasmania and is located just south of Melbourne.

One of 14 dead sperm whales lies washed up on a beach at King Island, north of Tasmania, Australia, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.

One of 14 dead sperm whales lies washed up on a beach at King Island, north of Tasmania, Australia, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.

Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania via AP

On top of that, two years ago to the day, 470 long-finned pilot whales were found beached on the sandbars of the very same harbour. Macquarie Harbour is a notoriously shallow channel which has earned the nickname Hell’s Gate.

The 2020 mass stranding lead to a week-long rescue effort in which authorities were able to save 111 of the beached whales. More than 350 whale carcasses had to be disposed. The event remains Australia’s worst mass stranding event.

At the time, the Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and Environment said Tasmania is known for massive whale strandings, with Strahan, Ocean Beach and Macquarie Harbour appearing to be “a hotspot, for whatever reason,” according to ABC Australia.

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Tom Mountney of Petuna Aquaculture, a seafood company that operates in the area, was part of the rescue team during the 2020 mass stranding and is also helping with the current rescue efforts with five of his colleagues.

“It’s a surreal scene,” he told The Guardian of the situation on the ground. “I’m seeing about 200 whales here on the beach. I’d say about half are alive. We are kicking off our rescue effort — getting them onto special blankets to right them. The biggest are over two to three tonnes. We are triaging the smaller ones.”

He noted that weather conditions were calm and he could hear some of the whales growling and clicking.

This photo provided by Huon Aquaculture, shows whales stranded at Macquarie Harbour in Strahan, Tasmania, Australia Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. About 230 whales have been stranded on Tasmania's west coast, just days after 14 sperm whales were found beached on an island off the southeastern coast.

This photo provided by Huon Aquaculture shows whales stranded at Macquarie Harbour in Strahan, Tasmania, Australia Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022. About 230 whales have been stranded on Tasmania's west coast, just days after 14 sperm whales were found beached on an island off the southeastern coast.

Andrew Breen/Huon Aquaculture via AP

It appears that not all of the whales in the pod are stranded, with Sam Gerrity of Southwest Expeditions, a local tour company, saying he saw “a few” whales still in the harbour, though “the majority of them are up on Ocean Beach.”

Karen Stockin, an expert on whale and dolphin strandings at Massey University in New Zealand, said the west coast of Tasmania is home to large populations of pilot whales, a type of oceanic dolphin.

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There are many factors that can cause a stranding to occur, she said, including changes in water temperature like during a La Niña or El Niño. If the “leading” whale of a pod navigates incorrectly and gets too close to shore, it can be dangerous for the entire pod.

“In pilot whales, they are highly social and cohesive and if one is debilitated or comes too close to shore, hundreds can follow.”

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