The race is on to save more than 100 whales stranded off Tasmania’s west coast, as volunteers work to move the huge animals and hope they don’t return to strife.
About one-third of the group of 270 whales have died, in a scene rescuers described as a “whale graveyard”.
On Tuesday morning, representatives from the Tasmanian Maritime Conservation Program said their operation would take days, and they would need to focus on the whales they believed could be saved.
Marine conservation experts were sent to the isolated seaside town of Strahan on Monday following reports of a huge group of whales stranded on the coast.
Around 200 of the whales have been stranded on a sandbar off the Macquarie Heads boat ramp. There is also a group of 30 stranded “several hundred metres away” on another sandbar, and 30 others stranded on Ocean Beach.
On Tuesday, rescuers saved 25 whales using a variety of methods, including using slings, boats and volunteers to guide the animals back out to sea.
Wildlife biologist Dr Kris Carlyon said the job was mentally and physically challenging, with rescue crews rotating regularly.
“It is fatiguing, it is also physically fatiguing and mentally fatiguing, we are dealing with large stressed animals for several days at a time, and it does take an emotional toll sometimes,” he said. “It is quite confronting.”
“This is such a tricky event – such a complex event, that any whale we save we are considering a real win. We are focusing on having as many survivors as we can.”
Nic Deka, north-west regional manager for Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service, said the coming days would be “a process of trying to find the best method” to move the whales.
The stranded animals are understood to be pilot whales, a species which can grow to seven metres long and weigh up to three tonnes.
“We will be trying to free some whales this morning,” he confirmed.
He added there was a possibility more animals could die as rescue efforts stretch into the week, but additional resources have been brought in to assist with the operation.
Rescuers estimate a third of the whales have died, but more further assessments using aerial infrared imagery will be done on Tuesday.
They are also considering what to do with the whale carcasses, including burying them or disposing them at sea.
Members of the public have been asked to avoid the area.
Macquarie University whale researcher Dr Vanessa Pirotta said she had spoken with volunteer rescuers who described the upsetting scene as a “like a whale graveyard”.
“They can hear the whales, which probably refers to the whales breathing and communicating,” she said.
Dr Pirotta said more knowledge about the number of whales and their condition would be available in the coming days as more volunteers arrived.
She said a major concern for the operation would be whales who have been returned to sea turning around and stranding themselves again.
“With whales being very social animals, if you take one out from such a large group they might hang around or re-strand.”
However, she said the whales were “in good hands”, describing the Tasmanian team as experienced and saying a stranding event of this scale was “just impossible” to predict.
The incident is the second largest whale stranding in Tasmania. The largest was 294 whales that were strandard in 1935.