470 pilot whales have run aground on the Tasmanian coast, more than ever before. Navigation errors could have been their undoing.
Another 200 pilot whales have stranded off the coast of Australia. This increased the number of whales stranded off the island of Tasmania to around 470. It is the largest number of stranded whales ever recorded in the history of Australia.
Authorities had already tried to save dozens of whales that were discovered on Monday on a beach and on two sandbanks near the town of Strahan in the west of the island. There were an estimated 270 animals. Of them, about 30 were moved into the open sea, but several were stranded again, said a worker with the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Agency, Nic Deka. About a third of the estimated 270 animals died by Monday evening.
The other 200 whales were spotted from the air on Wednesday, less than ten kilometers south, Deka said. “From the air it didn’t look as if they were in a condition that justified a rescue,” said Deka. “Most of them appeared to be dead.” Their condition should be examined more closely from boats.
Why the whales ran aground is a mystery. The group may have swum ashore to eat or follow suit through a mishap of a whale or two that misled the other members of the group, Carlyon said.
Marine biologist Vanessa Pirotta said there are several possible reasons for whales getting onto beaches, including navigational errors. “They have a very strong social system, these animals are closely connected and that is the reason why we have unfortunately seen so many in this situation in this case,” she told the Australian broadcaster ABC.
They might not always be saved “because they want to return to the group, they may hear the acoustics of the sounds the others are making, or they are simply disoriented and in this case extremely stressed and just likely so exhausted that in some cases they are don’t know where they are,” she said.
The island of Tasmania in southern Australia is the only part of the continent where massive whale beaching is more common, although it is sometimes seen on the mainland. Most whales to date – 320 pilot whales – were stranded near the western Australian town of Dunsborough in 1996. More than 600 pilot whales stranded on the South Island of neighboring New Zealand in 2017.
In 2009 more than 50 animals were stranded off Tasmania for the last time. “In Tasmania, this is the largest mass stranding that we have recorded,” said marine biologist Kris Carlyon of the marine conservation program. Aiders remained optimistic that more whales could be freed, Carlyon said. The cooler weather will help. “We have a very good chance of getting more off the sandbar.”