MELBOURNE, Australia – As the sad scene unfolding on an Australian beach proved, rescue an animal larger than a car is not an easy matter.
On Wednesday, about 230 pilot whales was stranded on a stretch off the west coast of Tasmania, an island nation of Australia. A scramble begins almost immediately to save as much as possible.
A pilot whale – technically a type of dolphin – can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh up to two tons. In most cases, their large muscles are an advantage: They have few natural predators and are a deadly, indestructible threat to the cephalopods they feed on.
But stuck on a beach, their size can be deadly. “Because they’re so heavy, their body weight literally crushes their internal organs,” said Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. “Depending on whether they’re upright or lying on their side, this affects how they breathe and how well their lungs function properly.”
And as the hours passed, the quest turned into a war against probability. Rescuers only had at least a day or two before the animal’s internal organs were severely damaged. Dr Pirotta said: “The moment the stranding happened, the clock started ticking. “The longer an animal stays on the beach, the less likely it is to return to the sea.”
By the end of Thursday, about 200 species of giant mammals had died. But despite the worst predictions, rescuers succeeded in saving about 32 others, tying them alongside boats provided by local fish farms and pulling them out into the deep waters outside. Harbor. A boat can carry two whales at once, one on each side, for an hour-long voyage.
“They slowly set sail until they regained some strength,” said Sam Gerrity, a local boat captain who also works in the tourism industry.
But there is no guarantee that a rescued whale will survive.
Weakened while on land, whales are not always strong enough to withstand rough sea conditions or be able to swim against the tides that can push them back to shore.
“They were somewhat damaged when we released them,” said Kris Carlyon, a marine biologist with the Tasmanian government. “We need to give them some time to get together physiologically.”
The journey to sea is an opportunity for the animals to calm down after a traumatic experience. Olaf Meynecke, a marine researcher at Griffith University, in Brisbane, said: “I compare it to a concert where a panic attack occurs because of a fire. “People can’t make conscious decisions because of that emotional stress.”
Some will be summoned back to the beach where other whales lie, especially if they hear them chirping from the shore. “They’re going through the stress and fear of losing a partner or a friend, and then that’s really weighing on all of the survival instincts,” says Dr. Meynecke.
By Friday morning, only a handful of rescued whales had run aground again, which was seen as a victory. A man died on the beach; five others were euthanized.
For pilot whales, who use echolocation to navigate, entering shallow water near beaches can be a death sentence. “They can’t navigate,” says Dr. Meynecke. “The sedimentary layer makes up all the sonars.”
So begins a deadly chain of command: One whale will cry for help, then the others in their nest will rush to their side, where they can’t escape either. “It turns into this cascading effect where the entire party, the superpod, moves into this dangerous area. They all end up there, but they can’t really get out,” says Dr. Meynecke.
The whales gradually became more panicked and confused, leading to hundreds of them stranding. Whales attract not only their friends, but also the friends of their friends. According to Dr Meynecke, pilot whales are deeply social animals, living in their mother’s shell for life and forming deep bonds with their relatives and friends.
Once every animal that could be rescued was taken to sea, they faced the daunting task of handling them.
On a wet Friday morning, scientists first took samples from animal carcasses on a Tasmanian beach to share with researchers around the world. David Hocking, a scientist from the Tasmanian Museum, said: “By looking at their genetics, we can see how the animals might be related.
Next, the workers use an arsenal of SUVs, tractors, and a remote control—like a giant forklift truck—to tow ships about a mile long along the coast to a where they can easily take to the sea. The carcasses were lined up hundreds of meters long, with their fins pointing to the sky and a thick rope tied around their tail.
Weather permitting, a boat pulls a caravan of dozens of dead whales, one after another, out to sea. Then, in a space of about six miles, the whales would be flung off the line and released back into the deep ocean.
This week’s rescue in Strahan, a village of about 650 people, happened two years till date after 470 whales washed themselves up in the same area.
This kind of stranding treatment – whether it’s protecting animals from sunburn, returning them to the sea, or disposing of them – is a massive endeavor that requires the support of nearly the entire community. To save even a few dozen whales, as happened in Strahan this week, is a win against the odds.
“People have learned a lot from last time,” said the captain, Gerrity, of a record stranding in 2020, with a sigh.