Some 230 pilot whales were found stranded across a remote Tasmanian beach on Wednesday, about half of which have already died, prompting rescue efforts to save the remaining survivors, reports the BBC.
The whales eerily washed up exactly two years to the day after the worst whale stranding in Australia’s history, when nearly 500 pilot whales were beached at the exact same location, known as Hell’s Gate,on Tasmania’s west coast. Only 111 of those whales survived.
The stranding also occurs just two days after a pod of 14 sperm whales were found dead on King Island, off the coast of northern Tasmania. Though pilot whales are commonly stranded in great numbers, it is rare for sperm whales to die onshore, raising more questions about the mysterious drivers of these sad events.
Emergency responders from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania Marine Conservation Program, the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, and the Tasmanian Police at Strahan are working to rescue the whales that are still alive.
Whale strandings occur in many locations around the world, but scientists are not sure what exactly drives this strange behavior. Some pods may become lost while evading predators or hostile environmental conditions. Storms unleashed by the Sun’s activity might scramble the navigational abilities of some pods. Human-driven climate change may also be exacerbating the problem, as warmer ocean temperatures disrupt marine ecosystems.
At Hell’s Gate, one culprit could be the slight angle of the seafloor, which may throw off the whales’ sense of echolocation and provide a false sense of safety in the shallow waters.
“The fact that we’ve seen similar species, the same time, in the same location, reoccurring in terms of stranding at that same spot might provide some sort of indication that there might be something environmental here,” said Vanessa Pirotta, a marine mammal scientist, according to the AP.
In a statement, Tasmanian officials warned the public not to interfere with the rescue effort unless instructed.
“The department has a comprehensive Cetacean Incident Manual which has undergone extensive review since the 2020 mass stranding and which guides a stranding response,” said the statement. “Marine wildlife experts will assess the scene and the situation to plan an appropriate response.”
“Stranding response in this area is complex,” it continued. “If it is determined there is a need for help from the general public, a request will be made through various avenues. Whales are a protected species, even once deceased, and it is an offense to interfere with a carcass.”