After the horror stranding of 470 pilot whales this week, Tasmania faces an unprecedented situation in which hundreds of whale carcasses need to be disposed of.
The job of whale disposal is a state-by-state concern, and this task will fall to the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.
DPIPWE are focussed on saving as many whales as they can at this stage but said the clean up mission was an evaluation of a number of options to be considered in the near future.
“We really can’t leave the whales in the harbour because they will present a range of issues. We’re committed to retrieving and disposing, it’s just a matter of settling on the best approach,” Parks and Wildlife Regional manager, Nic Deka said.
Pilot whales are relatively small compared to other whales so there are a few options available to those concerned with the clean up effort.
James Tucker, a PhD candidate for his research on whale carcass disposal at Southern Cross University, said there were four main options when disposing of whale carcasses.
While it depends entirely on the situation, leaving the carcasses where they are to naturally decompose, burying them on the beach, towing them back out to sea or taking them to landfill are the typical possibilities.
Mr Tucker said, although pilot whales were small, the number and location of the carcasses complicated matters.
Mr Tucker’s logistical concerns all but rule out beach burials and the possibility of taking the carcasses to landfill, while towing was not viable in this case.
“Towing them back out to sea usually only works with single carcasses and it is not something that is recommended in Australia. It becomes a navigation hazard,” Mr Tucker said.
The generally preferred course of action is leaving the whales to decompose naturally, but that presents its own set of difficulties.
But this option is contingent on the location being remote, where the public is less likely to come into contact with the whales directly.
Not only may the public be affected by the confronting sight or pungent smell of rotting whale flesh, coming into contact with rotting flesh can leave you with nasty infections.
Mr Tucker suggested there was potential for a hybrid disposal technique for the pilot whale carcasses in this situation where they would be towed to a “better location”.
“We have in the past said, ‘this is a bad spot for a carcass, let’s tow it somewhere else where we can get it to go ashore on a remote beach or get an excavator to remove the animal’.”
Organisation for the Rescue and Research of Cetaceans in Australia Vice President, Jools Farrell compared whale rescue sites to disaster triage in a hospital.
Ms Farrell, who has a background in nursing, said whales have their respiration and heart rates checked, then are prioritised by the urgency for their rescue and colour coded with tags accordingly.
While the pilot whale rescue at Macquarie beach may spur the sympathetic receptors in your brain, Ms Farrell said the intricacies of whale rescues can further endanger the whale and a potential helper.
“Human safety is the main thing, and then crowd control – noise upsets the whales.”
“Then you need to put on gloves … Their skin is like tissue paper. It’s very easy to scratch,” Ms Farrell said.
Ms Farrell also said dragging whales along sand can tear open their delicate skin and you have to be careful the whale does not roll over onto its side, or its blowhole, both of which can prove fatal.