A complex and delicate rescue operation is underway off Tasmania’s west coast as marine experts reveal almost 100 whales in a pod of 270 have already died.
Marine conservation experts have mapped out a rescue response that will last days.
Up to 60 people, including parks and wildlife staff and personnel from fish farms, are in the water and on the shore at Macquarie Harbour at Strahan, where the pod was discovered stranded on a sandbar on Monday.
An estimated 200 whales are stranded on a sandbar off the Macquarie Heads boat ramp while there are another 60 on a second sandbar at nearby Ocean Beach.
On Tuesday afternoon, rescuers said a handful had been freed.
“We have now freed a small number successfully that appear to have stayed out at sea and [we] are now scaling up that approach,” state Parks and Wildlife manager Nic Deka said.
“Basically we’ll take the animals with the best chance to start with and the ones that we are able to deal with.
“Some animals may be simply too big or in an unsuitable location.”
Marine Conservation Program wildlife biologist Dr Kris Carlyon said experts involved with the rescue were trying to refloat animals and assess behaviour.
“A lot of the rescue efforts will depend on how these animals respond once they have water underneath them,” Dr Carlyon said.
“Triage is going to be quite important here. We have got animals over a large area and in a really challenging location so we are going to take the animals with the best chance to start with and the ones we are able to deal with.
“Some animals may be too big or the location is too difficult to get to. About a third of the animals are deceased. We will update figures later in the day [Tuesday].”
Dr Carlyon said the rescue mission would take days, depending on weather and tide conditions.
“These are long-finned pilot whales, they are quite a robust species. They are wet, they are cool, and today we have some really suitable weather for them,” he said.
“If conditions stay the same, they can survive for quite a few days.”
“We have specialised equipment to help. The challenge will be what to do with those animals once they are refloated. Will we have to herd them out or will we have to move them by some other means.”
Mr Deka said about a third of the whales had already died by Monday night and most were inaccessible by boat.
“In terms of mass strandings in Tasmania, this is the trickiest we’ve had to deal with,” he added.
Mr Deka said pilot whales were a robust species and the survivors have a chance of lasting days on the sandbars if the weather stayed cool.
“It’s ugly for people on the ground but as far as the whales go, it’s ideal,” he said.
The whales got into trouble on Monday morning but the rescue couldn’t begin until marine specialists were able to survey the scene.
Mr Deka said multiple rescue methods would be used, many depending on how the whales responded.
It is understood to be the biggest mass stranding in Tasmania in more than a decade.
Mr Deka said the social pilot whales, which travel in groups of up to 1000, could have been drawn close to the coast to feed or because the pod followed the misadventure of a few individuals.