SYDNEY, Australia — Wildlife officials in the Australian state of Tasmania began disposing of hundreds of dead pilot whales on Saturday after ending rescue attempts in one of the largest incidents of whale beaching ever recorded globally.
In all, rescuers saved 108 out of the 470 whales that landed this week on a wide, remote sandbank in Tasmania’s rugged Macquarie Harbour. That prompted a five-day rescue effort involving dozens of volunteers who braved cold waters to guide as many of the animals as possible back out to sea.
Kris Carlyon, a marine biologist with the Tasmanian government, said that most of the whales that were turned around had not gotten stranded again, a silver lining in an otherwise sad affair. And most of those freed, including orphaned calves, are expected to recover from the traumatic event.
As officials concluded that rescue efforts could no longer save any more whales, however, the bodies of the dead were being corralled into pods and enclosed with water booms to keep them together and protected from sharks.
Rob Buck, the manager of the state’s Parks and Wildlife Service, said that 15 whales had been disposed of at sea and that removing the remaining ones would take several days.
“Collection and disposal is being undertaken with the assistance of aquaculture companies whose equipment and expertise on the harbor is essential for a timely and effective outcome,” he said in a statement.
The species, part of the dolphin family, is highly social, which may explain why such a large group ended up together on the sand.
Tasmania has long been a global hot spot for the whale strandings, but a thorough understanding of why animals beach themselves in the first place is incomplete.
In this case, scientists said, the whales may have taken a wrong turn, chased their prey into shallow waters or followed a dying matriarch who intended to beach herself.