More than 400 whales stuck in biggest-ever stranding

Off the coast of Tasmania

SYDNEY — A second pod of around 200 pilot whales has been found stranded off the west coast of Australia’s Tasmania, bringing the total number counted by rescuers this week to around 450.

Rescuers told reporters early Wednesday that the number was around 470, but it has since been revised. The numbers of whales counted are approximations, a spokeswoman for the rescue team said.

The new pod was spotted in the morning about 4.3 to 6.2 miles south of the original site in Macquarie Harbour.

“From the air, most appear to be dead,” Nic Deka, Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service manager, told reporters.

“They don’t look like they are in a position to warrant rescue.”

Marine Conservation Program biologist Kris Carlyon said it is the biggest stranding they have ever recorded in Tasmania, but there have been much larger ones in other countries.

Some 270 whales had became stranded Monday across three locations in the harbor, which is near the town of Strahan.

One-third were already dead before the rescue efforts could begin.

The new pod is likely to be part of the same stranding event, but Deka said he is confident they will not find any more whales.

On Tuesday, rescuers managed to free 25 whales from a sandbar off the Macquarie Heads boat ramp.

Overnight a small number had become stranded again, but Deka said the majority were still out in deep water.

Pilot whales are a very social species with strong group behavior, leading to concerns that whales could try to return to the herd despite having been rescued.

After testing various methods, around 60 rescuers landed on a successful technique to refloat and relocate the whales using slings attached to boats.

The rescue plan for Wednesday, which focuses on around 200 whales stranded on the Macquarie Heads sandbar, remains the same, Deka said.

“We’ve picked up where we left off yesterday and we’re applying the same strategy and we’ve become more efficient with that as we’ve gone along.”

Carlyon has described the situation as “confronting,” saying that rescuers could hear the whales calling out to each other in distress.

The rescue is likely to take days, but Carlyon said that long-finned pilot whales were a robust species and if the conditions stay cool and rainy they could survive for quite a few days.

On Wednesday the scene will be assessed from a helicopter using infrared technology to tally the number of survivors.

Carlyon said the cause of strandings is often unknown and could come down to “simple misadventure.”

“In terms of preparing for and stopping these events in the future … it’s pretty impossible to do. There’s nothing to indicate that this was due to human cause, this is a natural event,” he said.

“We know strandings have occurred throughout history prior to humans. This was something that happened from the fossil record right through to the current day.”

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