Mass strandings of whales in Tasmania are a mystery

It’s a sad picture: There are whales as far as the eye can see on Ocean Beach in Tasmania. Many are already dead. Two years ago there was a similar mass stranding in the same bay. What attracts marine mammals to the coast?

A rescuer pours water on a stranded whale at Ocean Beach near Strahan, Australia. More than 200 whales have stranded on Tasmania’s west coast. (Image: dpa)
(Foto: Uncredited/Australian Broadcasting Corporation/AP/dpa)

Hobart – Exactly two years after the largest known mass stranding of pilot whales in Australia to date, hundreds of marine mammals have again been washed ashore in the same bay. A total of around 230 animals have been spotted in the shallow Macquarie Bay in western Tasmania, the Tasmanian Natural Resources Authority said.

About half of them were initially still alive. It’s apparently pilot whales again, said Karen Stockin, an expert on whale and dolphin strandings at New Zealand’s Massey University.

Animals form extremely close bonds with each other

“Pilot whales are known to be mass stranders,” she explained in an interview with the German Press Agency. This is mainly due to the fact that the peaceful giants develop extremely close bonds with each other. If a single animal is sick, injured or weak and therefore stranded, hundreds could follow, explained the expert. “They don’t do it because they’re stupid, but because of their emotional connection to the other animals,” Australian media quoted Griffith University marine biologist Olaf Meynecke as saying.

Almost two years ago to the day, hundreds of whales were stranded in the same region. At that time, 470 pilot whales got lost in the remote bay. Only 111 animals could be saved during a costly rescue operation.

In addition, more than a dozen dead sperm whales were discovered on an island north of Tasmania on Monday. The 14 bodies lay on the coast of King Island between Tasmania and mainland Australia. Here, too, marine biologists and veterinarians are on duty to investigate the circumstances of death. However, Stockin sees no direct connection between the phenomena: “These were sperm whales, which are more of a loner.” Nevertheless, it is interesting that the two strandings happened so quickly one after the other.

Helpers speak of “surreal scenes”

Marine biologists, meanwhile, were at Ocean Beach on secluded Macquarie Bay to devise a plan to rescue the surviving sea giants. Helpers spoke of “surreal scenes”. They tried to protect the animals with special blankets. The largest specimens weigh two to three tons, the Australian “Guardian” quoted a man who had already helped with the 2020 whale mission.

Authorities urged citizens to stay away from the site. Those who are not officially invited to help with the rescue attempts should not come. “Having extra people can really hamper rescue efforts,” it said.

But what could have persuaded the animals to swim so close to the shore? Stockin cites a possible misnavigation by the leader of the group as the cause – or a change in water temperatures caused by the climate phenomena La Niña and El Niño. This can cause changes in the currents, which in turn lead to a change in prey behavior – and thus bring the whales to shallower waters.

© dpa-infocom, dpa:220921-99-843215/4

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