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In Tasmania, A Mission To Rescue 270 Stranded Whales

Pilot whales lie stranded on a sandbar Monday near Strahan, Australia. Marine conservationists have been deployed to the scene on Tasmania's west coast to try to rescue the whales.
Brodie Weeding
Pilot whales lie stranded on a sandbar Monday near Strahan, Australia. Marine conservationists have been deployed to the scene on Tasmania's west coast to try to rescue the whales.

Along the western coast of Tasmania, marine conservationists are gathering to conduct a massive operation: the rescue of some 270 pilot whales that have been stranded on sandbars there.

Tasmania is an island state of Australia, about 150 miles south of the mainland. The whales were first reported stuck on Monday morning.

Nic Deka of Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service toldthe Australian broadcaster ABC that government marine conservation experts planned to start the rescue operation on Tuesday morning, and that it would involve three sites where whales have beached in shallow water at the Macquarie Heads area.

"The main pod that's stranded is on a sandbar that's about 100 meters off the Macquarie Heads boat ramp, and there's a further pod on another sandbar several hundred meters further out from there," Deka said.

Video of the area showsa large number of whales stuck close together, trying fruitlessly to free themselves.

Deka told reporters that it's difficult to know how many of the whales may already be dead, but from the air it appeared that about 25 had died.

Twenty staff members had already arrived with specialized equipment for the mission.

"When we start making an effort tomorrow, it will be with an outward-going tide, so that will be in our favor, but obviously tides go up and down so we'll be aiming to make the most of the situation," Deka told ABC.

A species profile from the Australian government describes the long-finned pilot whale as "highly gregarious, usually [traveling] in small, socially cohesive groups of around 10–50 individuals, but are also encountered in large herds of several hundred and occasionally of over 1000 individuals."

Unfortunately, the beaching of a large number of whales is not uncommon in the area.

Tasmania has more whale strandings than any other Australian state, and Macquarie Harbour is one of the most common sites for such events. Authorities in Tasmania respond to strandings of whales or dolphins every two to three weeks, Reuters reported.

"Their social groups and strong bonding between the groups causes often all of them to strand," Griffith University whale researcher Olaf Meynecke told the news service.

And the frequency of such strandings doesn't make the rescue attempts any easier.

"It's a massive effort with any stranding, but [this many] is a big task," marine biologist Vanessa Pirotta toldThe Sydney Morning Herald.

"Marine animals have never felt their own weight before," Pirotta told the newspaper. "They can die from overheating or die from the weight of their body resting on the sand."

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Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.

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