In Melbourne, Australia more than a hundred pilot whales have died.
On Wednesday, around 230 pilot whales found themselves stranded on a remote stretch of the western coast of Tasmania. A rescue began almost immediately to save as many as possible.
A pilot whale may be as long as 20 feet and weigh as much as two tons or 4000 pounds. Usually, their large size is an advantage and they have few natural predators.
However, when stranded on a beach, their size can be deadly.
Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist who works with Macquarie University in Sydney said, “Because they’re so heavy, their body weight will literally crush their organs. Depending on if they’re upright or on the side, this will be compromising how they breathe and their lungs’ ability to function properly.”
As time went on, the rescue became a losing battle. Rescuers have very little time- a day or two at most- before the whales internal organs are too damaged.
Dr. Pirotta went on to say, “The moment a stranding happens, the clock starts ticking. The longer an animal is on the beach, the less likely it is to be returned back to sea.”
Sadly, by the end of the day on Thursday, about 200 of the whales had died. Rescuers were able to say about 32 others though. Rescuers were able to tie the surviving whales alongside of boats and drag them out to deeper water. This was a time-consuming journey as they could only take two whales at a time for the hour-long trek.
“They slowly go out to sea with them, until they get a little bit of strength back,” said Sam Gerrity, a local boat skipper.
There is, however, no guarantee that a rescued whale will survive the ordeal.
Due to their time stranded on land, the whales may not be strong enough to handle the rough ocean or swim against the currents that may push them back to shore.
Kris Carlyon, a marine biologist said, “They are somewhat compromised when we do release them. We need to give them some time to get themselves together physiologically.”
Some whales may even be called back to the shore where the other whales may still be sending out distress signals.
Pilot whales use echolocation to navigate. When they enter shallow water, “They can’t navigate. The sediment takes up all the sonar.” according to Dr. Meynecke.
As reported by The New York Times,
So begins a deadly chain of command: One whale will call for help, then others in their pod will rush to their side, where they, too, become unable to escape. “It turns into this cascading effect, where the entire group, the superpod, moves into this dangerous area. They all end up there, but they all can’t actually get out,” Dr. Meynecke said.
The whales become gradually more panicked and confused, resulting in strandings of up to hundreds of the animals. Whales draw in not only their friends, but also their friends of friends. Pilot whales are deeply social animals who remain in their mothers’ pods for life and who form profound bonds with their relatives and friends, according to Dr. Meynecke.
As for the whales who died, their carcasses were tied together one after another and taken out to sea. Then, over a space of about six miles, the whales would be deposited back into the deep ocean.