More than 140 pilot whales have died following a mass stranding in Australia.
Photo: Western Australia’s Parks and Wildlife Service

Rescuers in Australia’s Hamelin Bay are struggling to save six short-finned pilot whales out of an estimated 150 who beached themselves on the rocky shore earlier today.

More than 100 volunteers descended upon the beach, which is located 185 miles (300 km) south of Perth along Australia’s southwest coast. The last time this happened at Hamelin Bay, some 15 years ago, none of the beached whales survived. Only six whales remain alive after this latest stranding, with over 140 short-finned pilot whales already confirmed dead, as reported by CNN.

The rescuers, some from Western Australia’s Parks and Wildlife Service, Sea Search and Rescue, and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), managed to return the six surviving whales to the sea around 7:00 am local time, but the conditions are not good; the beach is rocky and the seas are starting to churn.

Though the surviving whales are back in the water, officials will be monitoring the situation closely, as “it is possible the whales will come back into shore and re-strand,” Incident Controller Jeremy Chick told CNN. “This has often been the case in previous mass strandings.”

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Photo: Western Australia’s Parks and Wildlife Service

Making matters worse, the rescuers are now concerned about sharks.

“It is possible the dead and dying animals will act as an attractant, which could lead to sharks coming close into shore along this stretch of coast,” noted the DPIRD in a statement.

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The short-finned pilot whale is the largest of the dolphin species, but it behaves more like large whales. Adults measure between 12 to 18 feet in length (3.7 to 5.5 meters), and can weigh anywhere from one to three tons. These animals, which prefer tropical and subtropical waters, are highly sociable and are rarely seen alone.

The reason for mass strandings is not known, but pilot whales are particularly vulnerable to this behavior. Echolocation, which they use to navigate, gets compromised in shallow waters. But it’s their exceptionally strong social bonds that may be the culprit. These whales will stick together, regardless of the perils. It’s possible that an old, sick, or injured whale got stranded, prompting its podmates to follow, or swim to their aid.

As bad as this stranding is, it’s not the biggest for Australia. Back in 1996, 320 long-finned pilot whales beached themselves in the coastal town of Dunsborough, though thankfully all but 20 survived.

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