Tasmania a ‘global hotspot’ for mass whale strandings, with pilot whales ‘main culprits’

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Rescuers are preparing to save a large pod of whales stuck on a sandbank off Tasmania’s West Coast, with researchers labelling the state a “global hotspot” for mass strandings.

On Monday, around 270 pilot whales got into difficulty on a sandbank at Macquarie Heads, near Strahan on Tasmania’s west coast, about 190 kilometres from Hobart.

The Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) said the whales were stranded at three different sites, with at least 25 appearing to be dead.

Whale stranding, Perkins Island north west Tasmania.
A whale stranding at Perkins Island north west Tasmania.(Parks and Wildlife)

‘The capital’ of mass strandings

Nic Deka from DPIPWE said Australia’s southernmost state was known for en masse whale strandings.

“Whale strandings are not uncommon in Tasmania, and whale strandings of this scale are not uncommon either, but certainly we haven’t had one for at least 10 years,” he said.

Whale expert Mike Double, who assisted in the recent rescue of a humpback whale in the Northern Territory’s crocodile-infested waters, said Tasmania was the “global hotspot” for these events.

“Basic strandings are reasonably common throughout Australia, but when it comes to mass strandings, yes, Tassie is absolutely the capital,” the researcher from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies said.

Pilot whales stranded on Tasmanian beach
Pilot whale carcasses washed ashore at Marion Bay in southern Tasmania in 2005.(File photo: AAP)

Dr Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University said New Zealand also had mass stranding events, with pilot whales most commonly involved.

“It’s not uncommon to hear that many stranding, especially if it is the pilot whale — they’re very social creatures,” she said.

“It seems that in many of these mass stranding events that we see around the world, pilot whales unfortunately are one of the main culprits of the animals to strand.”

What makes it a ‘hotspot’?

Researchers say it’s difficult to pinpoint any single cause.

It could be the nature of the coastline, misadventure, disorientation caused by complex or shallow waterways or rough seas, prey coming close to shore or a flight response from a perceived threat.

Dr Pirotta said people in Tasmania may simply spot these events more often because it is a small island state, and many residents live close to the coast.

A pilot whale lays dead on a beach after stranding on Robbins Island, Tasmania.
A pilot whale lays dead on a beach after stranding on Robbins Island, Tasmania.(Parks and Wildlife Service)

She said humans could also cause whales to become disoriented.

“Humans do contribute a lot of acoustic pollution in the marine environment, we also have fishing gear, we also have ships. We present a number of threats to these animals,” she said.

Cetaceans such as whales, dolphins and porpoises are also very curious by nature.

“These animals may have ventured a little too close and as a result have entered into an area which has resulted in a stranding situation,” Dr Pirotta said.

Either way, the inlet at Macquarie Heads makes a perfect location for whales to become stranded.

Numerous whales stranded seen from above
Whales have become stranded before at the same spot as Monday’s event.(ABC News: Cameron Atkins)

It’s happened before, in the same spot

Dr Double said in 2011 he helped with the rescue of 20 sperm whales in what appeared to be the same spot as the latest stranding.

Tarpaulins over a killer whale on the beach, with people hosing it down.
A whale stranded on Badger Beach in Tasmania in 2019.(Supplied: DPIPWE)

He said all but four of them died.

“But even that was quite a success story because … what looked like a situation, where they were all going to die, DPIPWE managed to save a few,” he said.

The rescue mission of the pilot whales is expected to start early today, and could take days.

“Depending on how many are alive and how accessible they are and if they can keep them alive, they could be there for quite a while,” Dr Double said.

He said one of DPIPWE’s main challenges would be managing rescue crews and onlookers.

“It’s just that balance of having people there that are well trained and will listen to directions, and those that get quite emotional and don’t necessarily follow direction,” he said.

The DPIPWE has urged people not to participate in the rescue efforts.

“If you can try and stay away, please do,” Mr Deka said.


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