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Whale beachings puzzle scientists as hundreds die in Australia mass stranding

A pod of pilot whales, some 500 strong, trapped on the western shore of Tasmania.
A pod of pilot whales, some 500 strong, trapped on the western shore of Tasmania. © France 24 screen grab
3 min

At least 380 whales have died in a mass stranding in southern Australia, officials said Wednesday, as hopes faded of saving more than a few dozen of the creatures still trapped on the beach.

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Despite two days of a difficult and dangerous rescue attempt, nearly the entire pod of 460 long-finned pilot whales stuck in Macquarie Harbour, on the rugged and sparsely populated west coast of Tasmania, has now perished.

Though only a few dozen whales have been freed, conservationists say it was still worth the effort.

"Our focus is obviously on the rescue of live individuals at the moment,” says Kris Carlyon, a wildlife biologist at the Marine Conservation Program. “[But] in the back of our minds, there's always what happened here. Typically, we don't get any answers."

While experts still don't know for certain why mass beachings occur, one key factor appears to be whales' tight social cohesion.The bond between them is so strong that even once they are rescued, many turn around and beach themselves again.

"It might be because they want to return back to the pod,” says marine scientist Vanessa Pirotta. “They might hear (...) the sounds that the others are making or they're just disoriented and in this case extremely stressed, and just probably so fatigued that they in some cases don't know where they are."

Pilot whales weigh over a thousand kilogrammes each, meaning that once they've hit the sand they can no longer drag themselves back into the water.

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