When we first wrote about 270 whales mysteriously stranded off the Australian island of Tasmania, rescuers knew the clock was ticking. Stranded whales have only days before their massive weight — which is usually buoyed by water — collapses upon them, causing fatal organ damage. “They end up being suffocated by the weight of their own bodies, which is why it’s an incredibly painful way to go,” Nicola Hodgins, from the UK’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation charity, told NBC News.
But although dozens of whales have been freed and re-floated into deeper waters, the rescue efforts took an ominous turn when an additional 200 stranded whales were discovered days later. Most of these whales were already dead, but rescuers believe they belonged to the original pod, making this tragic disaster the largest mass stranding of whales in Australian history.
“Our focus is on those animals that are still alive,” Nic Deka, a representative from Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service, told reporters, according to NBC News. “The mortality has increased, but there are a significant number that are alive so we will continue to work with those.”
But the deaths of at least 380 whales greatly outweigh the number of survivors, according to NBC News, which reported that rescuers had already saved about 50 whales and were racing to rescue dozens more.
Nobody knows for sure what caused this heartbreaking event (or mass strandings in general), but experts believe whales’ social nature likely plays a role. “They will not allow an animal to be sent off to die on its own,” said Hodgins. “It’s just probably one of the strongest social bondings of any species.”
Other factors could have also caused the pod to veer off course, including disease, toxins, extreme weather, or even auditory interference from a ship or oil rig’s sonar. Nor are the whales who escaped this deadly ordeal out of danger, especially if the older whales who know the pod’s migratory patterns and traditional whale behaviors have all died. There’s also a risk the rescued whales might try to return for their loved ones, getting beached again in the process. “It’s just heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking to see these animals are struggling,” said Hodgins.
Regardless, rescuers have managed to re-float roughly 50 rescued whales into deeper waters, and are currently racing against the clock to save dozens more survivors. “I think we have a really good chance of getting more off the sandbar and out through the gates,” one of the rescuers, Australian wildlife biologist Kris Carlyon, told reporters. “We are still very hopeful.”
Godspeed! Thank you for saving these beautiful creatures!
Follow the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service on Facebook for updates on this rapidly developing situation:
J. Swanson is a writer, traveler, and animal-enthusiast based in Seattle, an appropriately pet-crazed city where dog or cat ownership even outweighs the number of kids. When the weather permits, she likes to get outside and explore the rest of the Pacific Northwest, always with a coffee in hand.