A devastating blow to the efforts of rescuers came early on Wednesday morning with reports 200 more whales had been discovered dead on the West Coast.
Rescue crews were already fighting a losing battle to save the 250 whales stranded at Macquarie Harbour, as Marine Conservation Program wildlife biologist Kris Carlyon said there was “very little” which could be done to save the majority.
“This is a natural event … we know strandings occurred prior to humans,” he said.
“We do step in and respond but as far as being able to prevent these, there’s very little we can do.”
And on Wednesday afternoon, Dr Carlyon and Parks and Wildlife Service colleague and incident controller Nic Deka confirmed 380 of the 470-whale pod were dead.
Dr Carlyon said it was believed that was the largest stranding and largest number of deaths in Australia in recorded history.
The Department of Parks recorded the next largest stranding in Tasmania to have occurred in Stanley in 1935 when 294 pilot whales were stranded.
The teams did have success in saving another 25 whales and returning them to deeper water across Wednesday, and another 30 remained alive and stranded on the sands in the shallow harbour.
Mr Deka said the crews would continue working into the night to rescue as many of those as possible, while the operation’s various stakeholders also met to discuss ways to remove and dispose of hundreds of whale carcasses.
However, Dr Carlyon offered what many may see as a silver lining.
He said that previous scientific studies had shown that whales which had been through a beaching or stranding event and subsequently rescued did reform in their pods and social communities.
“Obviously this would have been a hugely stressful event for those animals,” Dr Carlyon said.
“There has been some good studies involving satellite tracking of post-release animals in the past, and we have shown fairly conclusively that animals will regroup.
“They will reform those social bonds and they will, at least in the short to medium term… demonstrate normal and natural behaviour.
“So, yes, an absolutely hugely stressful event for those animals and a loss of a lot of members of that group.
“But those remaining animals we would expect to be able to regroup and function as normal.”
Mr Deka also challenged criticism about the time taken to prepare for the rescue, saying such precautions must be taken to be able to ensure human safety and animal welfare.