Fifty-two whales stranded on a West Australian beach have died, with wildlife experts preparing now to lead the rest of the pod into deeper water.
Dozens of workers and volunteers braved the cold Wednesday morning armed with specially designed slings to get 45 long-finned pilot whales off Cheynes Beach, 60km east of Albany, and back into the water.
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The surviving whales have been kept together, so they can collect as a pod and hopefully swim out to deeper seas.
The fear is they will beach themselves again if they are isolated.
“Today, efforts remain focused on saving 45 live pilot whales that were stranded overnight on Cheynes Beach,” Parks and Wildlife Service said.
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“Staff and volunteers are currently in the water preparing to safely lead the 45 whales into deeper waters.”
Officials initially estimated the number of whales involved at 70 before the tally was lifted on Wednesday to 97.
The rescue effort was sparked after the large, huddled pod was spotted swimming perilously close to Cheynes Beach on Tuesday morning.
Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions officers became concerned as the pod began drifting closer to the beach.
Moments before the stranding, crews were surprised to see the pod form a loose heart shape, which was captured by a drone camera.
By 4pm a large stretch of the shoreline was covered in floundering mammals.
Rescuers are working to save pilot whales stranded at Cheynes Beach near Albany. Credit: 7NEWSRescuers are trying to drag the whales into deeper water. Credit: 7NEWS
DBCA Parks and Wildlife Service staff, including Perth Zoo veterinarians and marine fauna experts, on Wednesday began grouping stranded whales before refloating them together to give them a better chance of survival.
Crews have been inundated by hundreds of offers to help, with Parks and Wildlife staff asking the public to stay away.
Environment Minister Reece Whitby arrived at the beach on Wednesday.
“What we’re seeing is utterly heartbreaking and distressing. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy to see these dead pilot whales on the beach,” he said.
WA authorities were surprised to see a pod of whales form a heart shape before beaching. Credit: AAP
There are a number of hazards in the area, including large, distressed and potentially sick whales, sharks, waves, heavy machinery and vessels.
Wildlife experts have speculated the unusual behaviour of the whales could be an indicator of stress or illness within the pod.
Macquarie University wildlife scientist Vanessa Pirotta said why whales stranded themselves remained a mystery.
“The fact they were in one area very huddled and doing really interesting behaviours and looking around at times suggests something else is going on that we just don’t know,” she said.
What set the event apart from previous strandings was the availability of footage showing the animals before they stranded, she said.
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Analysing the clip, Pirotta said a whale may have been sick or the pod might have become disorientated but it was unlikely they were trying to avoid predators.
Griffith University whale researcher Dr Olaf Meynecke said of all whales, dolphins and porpoises, pilot whales were most prone to mass strandings.
The whales were highly social animals and maintained complex familial relationships with their pods from birth.
Meynecke described a kind of ripple effect that can occur when some individuals get stressed.
“The stress seems to build up. They are so closely bonded it’s almost like they are stressing each other out and they are so bound together they will just go in as a bubble,” Meynecke said.
“It kind of makes sense given their strong emotional bonding to their peers.”
Pirotta said the whales had a “follow-the-leader type mentality” that could be the reason behind mass strandings.
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