An entire pod of pilot whales has died on the coast of Western Australia after repeatedly beaching themselves.
Experts and volunteers spent nearly two days attempting to return the whales to deeper water, but the entire pod – almost a hundred of nature’s largest dolphin species – has now died, with many of them euthanised after they were saved once only to return to beach themselves again.
The pod was spotted last Tuesday morning in a tight heart-shaped huddle only about 100 metres off Cheynes Beach. Monitoring began but by late afternoon the whales were languishing on the shore and over 50 of them died.
Officials from the Parks and Wildlife Service of Western Australia, vets from Perth Zoo, and experts from Western Australia state’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions were joined by hundreds of volunteers on the beach. A mass effort began to keep the remaining whales submerged and move them to deeper water.
2. The rescue effort
The work involved vessels, specialist equipment and slings but also lower tech action such as ‘slapping’ the water to try and encourage the creatures to move away. Facebook user Mike Conway said the rescuers bonded with the whole pod as they gave the “whales one final rub, wished them luck and pushed them in the direction of the open ocean.”
Tragically, less than 45 minutes later the whales had stranded themselves again and the Parks and Wildlife Service was forced to make a “difficult decision for all involved.”
“Within an hour of beaching, veterinarians had assessed the whales and confirmed they were displaying signs of rapid deterioration,” the government service said. “Our incident management team then determined the most appropriate and humane course of action was to euthanise the 43 remaining whales to avoid prolonging their suffering.”
Causes of death in beached cetaceans include dehydration, collapsing under their own weight as they are no longer buoyed by water, and drowning when their blowholes are covered by incoming water.
Western Australia’s environment minister, Reece Whitby, noted that science does not have an explanation for the “frustrating” beaching phenomenon, though water temperature, echolocation problems and geomagnetic disturbances have been put forward. Sonar activity has been shown to be linked to some strandings.
Pilot whales are thought to have strong pod affiliation. Old and sick whales sometimes become stranded and up to 2000 whales beach themselves every year, but the behaviour seen in this instance, with the huddling of the entire pod before they swam into shallow waters, is very unusual.
“What we’re seeing is utterly heartbreaking and distressing,” Whitby told reporters. “It’s just a terrible, terrible tragedy to see these dead pilot whales on the beach.”