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Rescuers save dozens of whales after hundreds die on shores of Tasmania

Rescuers work with whales in shallow water off the Australian island state of Tasmania on Thursday, in an image from video. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation/AP)

Rescuers responding to a deadly mass whale stranding on Tasmania’s west coast said Thursday that they had released 32 pilot whales into deep waters, while three remain stranded but out of reach in the remote location on the Australian island state.

About 200 of the animals have died so far this week after the stranding was first reported Wednesday and marine wildlife experts rushed to Macquarie Harbor along with Tasmanian police and employees from the parks and wildlife service. The harbor is dangerously shallow, and its entrance is known as “Hell’s Gates.”

This week’s tragedy coincides with the anniversary of Australia’s largest mass stranding on record, when more than 350 pilot whales died in September 2020.

The cause of the latest stranding is unknown, and tests are being carried out on the carcasses, officials said.

Tasmania’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment said in a statement Thursday that the surviving whales were released into deep waters by teams that have been working around-the-clock to save the mammals, considered a protected species.

Officials said many of the whales did not survive after becoming stuck in the remote area, including on Ocean Beach — Tasmania’s longest, stretching for 25 miles north of Hell’s Gates.

Incident Controller Brendon Clark said the rescue required a “massive effort,” including by staffers and volunteers who battled “challenging west coast conditions.”

Experts have moved the stranded whales from the sand using specialist equipment loaned to them from local companies. The mammals are kept wet with sheets, towels and buckets of water and transported back into the water using slings, boats and other vehicles.

Soft sand on Ocean Beach near Strahan “made accessing some areas and maneuvering vehicles and equipment difficult,” Clark said.

As of Thursday evening local time, three whales remain alive on the beach — though rescue teams have been unable to reach them, citing the “challenging location and tidal conditions.”

Officials said the rescue crew would try again to reach the animals Friday morning.

“Assistance from local aquaculture companies with vessels and a telehandler to help lift whales has been invaluable in today’s success, and we thank everyone for their efforts,” Clark said, also thanking the Strahan community for watching from a distance and not getting in the way of rescuers. The West Coast Council has reminded the public that it is an offense to interfere with a whale carcass.

“Over the coming days the team will focus on the removal and disposal operations of about 200 deceased whales,” the Department of Natural Resources and Environment said, adding that the timing would be determined by the weather.

Clark said the disposal of such a huge number of carcasses would take significant time but did not offer details.

In another stranding on Monday, 14 sperm whales were found washed up on King Island, between Tasmania and Australia’s mainland.

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Experts have long warned that climate change is disrupting ocean ecosystems, presenting marine species with myriad challenges.

“The distribution patterns of many marine species are changing due to these shifting oceanographic conditions,” NOAA Fisheries, a U.S. government agency, notes in an article that examines the threat of a warming climate on the ocean’s largest species. “Whales are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change because these effects can be magnified toward the top of the food web.”

While sperm whales are often spotted in Tasmania, Olaf Meynecke, a Griffith University marine scientist, told the Associated Press it was unusual for the species to wash ashore.

Warming temperatures could be changing the ocean currents and moving the whale’s traditional food sources, Meynecke said, factors that are detrimental to the mammal’s quality of life.

“They will be going to different areas and searching for different food sources,” he said. “When they do this, they are not in the best physical condition because they might be starving so this can lead them to take more risks and maybe go closer to shore.”

In September 2020, almost 500 pilot whales became beached in Macquarie Harbor. More than 350 of the animals died despite rescuers’ efforts.

Experts told The Washington Post at the time that the social bonds of pilot whales pose a challenge during such rescue missions because the animals constantly communicate with one another, meaning some that make it back to deep waters pull U-turns to rejoin the stranded group, which puts out distress calls.

380 pilot whales die in one of the worst mass strandings in Australia’s history

“Even when you got some animals successfully into deeper waters, it’s not uncommon for them to turn tail and come straight back in,” said Karen Stockin, a professor and marine mammal scientist.

In 1996, more than 300 pilot whales died in Western Australia during a mass stranding.