Rescuers scramble to save stranded pilot whales in Tasmania, with up to 90 feared dead

By Matilda Boseley

Marine rescue teams are rushing to save a pod of pilot whales stranded off the coast of Tasmania in a multi-day operation, with up to a third of the 270 mammals likely already dead.

Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s west coast is known to be a hotspot for the marooning of marine animals, but this event is believed to be the worst in more than a decade, with the pod of hundreds of whales scattered across two sandbars and one beach.

A large scale rescue operation was under way on Tuesday morning, but Parks and Wildlife Services marine biologist Dr Kris Carlyon said it could take a number of days.

“We don’t really know how long this rescue is going to take. This morning’s phase will be critical in determining what is possible and then we’ll have to deal with other factors like weather, like tides and all that will come into it,” he said.

“We’re going to trial a couple of things this morning. We’re going to refloat several animals and assess behaviour. So this entire operation … depends on how these animals respond once they’ve got water underneath them and are free-floating.”

Stranded whales on a sandbar in Macquarie Heads, Tasmania.
Stranded whales on a sandbar in Macquarie Heads, Tasmania. Photograph: Tasmania Police/Reuters

Carlyon said rescuers would have to triage animals, floating those with the best chance of survival and in the easy-to-access locations first, as many are in areas boats can’t reach. He said up to a third of the mammals have already died.

But luckily the cool and wet weather conditions have given the others a good chance of survival, Carlyon said.

“These are long fin pilot whales, they’re quite a robust species … Given that they’re wet, they’re cool, we got some really suitable weather actually, it’s pretty ugly out there for people on the ground, but as far as the whales go, it’s ideal,” he said.

“If the conditions stay the same, they can survive for quite a few days.”

Nic Deka, incident controller from the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and Environment, said the team was recruiting help from local fish farmers.

“They have been generous enough to provide some boats and equipment and some personnel. So we’ll be taking advantage of that and working with them,” he said.

“At the present time, we have about 40 staff from across the area in Strahan. We also have some people from other departments, we have police assisting us. We got some folk from the fish farm assisting us and also a handful of volunteers.”

The rescue operation started on Tuesday with effort expected to stretch well into the week.