At 'Hell's Gate,' Hundreds of Stranded Whales Languish

Half the whales beached in Tasmania may still be alive, but rescue is 'complex'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 21, 2022 10:10 AM CDT
Tasmanian Beach Sees Grim Repeat of a Mass Stranding
In this image made from video, a rescuer pours water on one of the stranded whales on Ocean Beach, near Strahan, Tasmania, on Wednesday.   (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

(Newser) – Almost two years ago to the day, close to 400 whales died after washing up on the shores near Macquarie Heads, Tasmania, in one of the largest strandings ever recorded. Now, deja vu on the Australian island's west coast. Some 230 whales have been beached near the town of Strahan on a sand flat at the entrance to Macquarie Harbor, in a dangerous and shallow channel known as Hell's Gate, reports the AP. The Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania said Wednesday it appears a pod of pilot whales is stranded, and at least half of them are thought to be alive. A rescue plan is underway, but the department noted in a statement that such an endeavor will be "complex," per the BBC.

"Last time they were actually in the harbor and it's quite calm ... and we could get the boats up to them," a local salmon farmer who took part in 2020's rescue tells the Australian Broadcasting Corp., per the AP. "But ... on the beach, you just can't get a boat in there, it's too shallow, way too rough." As experts scramble to figure out the logistics, locals are trying to assist in the interim by pouring water over the whales and covering them with blankets. Complicating matters: Whales still swimming offshore are being beckoned by the calls of their beached companions. The prognosis for the surviving whales doesn't look good, according to some locals. "At least 95% will die, because the ocean's just so fierce," a boat skipper who helped with 2020's rescue predicts.

This event comes just days after 14 sperm whales were found dead on King Island in the Bass Strait, about 170 miles north, per the New York Times. It's still not clear why the whales keep getting beached in this general area at this time of year. Vanessa Pirotta, a marine mammal expert at Macquarie University, says environmental factors could be at play, but she lists other possibilities, like a sick whale leading the others astray or the whales becoming disoriented by something like a coastal shelf. Pilot whales are notorious for mass strandings, as they're social creatures that tend to stick together closely. "It's a follow-the-leader situation," Pirotta says. (Read more whales stories.)

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