Australian lifeguards said Thursday that around 200 pilot whales have died after stranding on an open, surf-filled beach on Tasmania’s rugged west coast.
Only 35 out of about 230 whales discovered on the beach the day before were still alive, state wildlife director Brandon Clark told reporters at the scene.
Aerial photographs have revealed dozens of shiny black mammals strewn across Ocean Beach, stuck at the waterline where the cold southern ocean meets sand.
“We have about 35 animal survivors on the beach and the focus this morning will be on rescuing and releasing these animals,” Clarke, who manages the incident, said.
“Unfortunately, we have a really high mortality rate on this particular shore. This is mainly due to the open conditions at Ocean Beach,” he added.
“The environmental conditions, the surf on the open west coast of Ocean Beach, is definitely taking its toll on the animals.”
Locals covered the whales with blankets and doused them with buckets of water to keep them alive after they were discovered on the shore.
Two years ago, nearby Macquarie Harbor was the scene of the largest mass grounding in the history of the country, involving almost 500 grinds.
More than 300 pilot whales died during the stranding, despite the efforts of dozens of volunteers who worked for days in the icy waters of Tasmania to free them.
Clarke said the conditions of the last stranding were harsher for the whales than two years ago, when the animals were in “much more sheltered waters.”
Rescuers sorted the whales during the last grounding to identify those with the best chance of survival, he said.
“Today’s focus will be on rescue and liberation operations.”
The cause of mass twisting is not yet fully understood.
Scientists have speculated that they may be caused by the pods going astray after feeding too close to the shore.
Pilot whales, which can reach over six meters (20 feet) in length, are very sociable and can follow relatives that are in danger.
This sometimes happens when old, sick or injured animals swim ashore with other members of the pod following them in an attempt to respond to the captured whale’s distress calls.
Others believe that gently sloping beaches, such as those in Tasmania, confuse the whales’ sonar into thinking they are in open waters.
The latest stranding occurred shortly after a dozen young male sperm whales were found dead in a separate mass washed ashore on King Island – between Tasmania and Australian mainland.
The death of young whales could be an “accident,” wildlife biologist Chris Carlyon of the state conservation agency told the local Mercury newspaper.
Beside New Zealand twists are also common.
According to official figures, about 300 animals are washed ashore every year, and it is not uncommon for groups of 20 to 50 pilot whales to run aground.
But the numbers can run into the hundreds when it comes to the “super pod”—in 2017, nearly 700 pilot whales were stranded en masse.