‘It’s a fantastic result’: More whales to be freed before carcass collection begins

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Exhausted rescuers and volunteers working to save pilot stranded whales will be relieved by fresh crews today on Tasmania’s west coast.

About 60 rescuers worked to free another 18 whales from a sandbar at Macquarie Harbour near Strahan yesterday, taking the total number of saved mammals to 88.

Conditions have taken their toll on workers who have dealt with high winds and rain, as well as the emotional toll of hundreds of whale deaths.

“I think everyone’s tired and feeling the fatigue. They’ve been long days. The people on site working on the water are those doing it hardest,” incident controller Nic Deka said.

“Each day takes its toll, they’re 12-hour days or more. It’s a wearing process.”

Approximately 380 of the original 470 pilot whales discovered beached on Monday and Wednesday have died and only about 20 more whales are deemed to have a good chance of survival.

Saving those 20 whales will form the focus of today’s efforts.

Wildlife biologist Kris Carlyon, who has helped lead the rescue effort, said crews had been buoyed by the number of whales saved.

“If we’d said on Monday when we were going through our plans that we’d get 90 off the bar then we’d have been very happy with that,” he said.

Boat carrying a pilot whale in a cradle, with a dead whale in background.
Rescuers are planning to free 20 additional whales.(ABC News: Manika Champ)

Today will also see efforts begin to contain and dispose of the approximately 380 whale carcasses strewn across the harbour, with pens likely to be used initially to contain the whales in a bid to prevent the bodies being moved by wind and tides.

An appropriate method of collection and disposal is still being decided, with authorities liaising with local fish farms and the CSIRO to determine the best course of action.

There also remains a chance more whales will need to be euthanased by firearm, using custom ammunition.

Yesterday Dr Carlyon said this method was considered “world’s best practice”. So far, four whales have been euthanased.

However, he is confident the 88 whales that have been successfully returned to sea are thriving, despite potentially losing matriarchs of the pod.

“If they’ve lost the older females with that built-up knowledge of the area then they may need to learn new behaviours,” he said.

On Monday, 270 whales were discovered beached at Macquarie Harbour and Ocean Beach, and on Wednesday a further 200 animals were discovered beached about 5 kilometres further into the harbour.

Experts are still trying to determine what caused the mass stranding, which is the largest recorded in Tasmania.

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