Almost 500 whales have beached themselves in the second largest stranding ever – and it's left experts baffled.
Rescuers were already working to return an initial group of some 270 pilot whales stranded near the remote town of Strahan when a second group of 200 beached themselves six miles further down the coast on the Australian island of Tasmania.
The initial group was spotted on a wide sandbank during an aerial reconnaissance of Tasmania’s rugged Macquarie Harbour on Monday.
By late Wednesday, around 50 of the mammals had been freed but experts fear it's very likely they would return to the beach.
Many of the whales from the first wave who had been returned to the sea had already re-stranded themselves creating an exhausting loop for rescuers who cannot work through the night.
The refloating process involves as many as four or five people per whale wading waist-deep in freezing water, attaching slings to the animals so they can be guided out of the harbour by a boat.
Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service Manager Nic Deka said that he didn’t think any of the ocean mammals could be saved.
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"From the air, they didn't look to be in a condition that would warrant rescue," he said.
"Most of them appeared to be dead.
"We do expect to rescue more but increasingly our focus is what do with the carcasses."
He added a rescue crew was being sent by boat to make a closer inspection.
Professor Peter Harrison, the director of Southern Cross University’s Marine Ecology Research Centre said that the incident was historic in scale.
He said: ”It's certainly a major event and of great concern when we potentially lose that many whales out of a stranding event.”
The exact cause of mass strandings remains a mystery.
Changes in ocean temperature and high-powered sonar have both been blamed.
A US Navy report from 2000 suggests a strong link between the use of sonar and strandings of beaked whales.
Every year, up to 2,000 animals beach themselves, and the phenomenon dates back into prehistory.
The largest whale stranding on record dates back to 1918, when approximately 1,000 pilot whales were stranded on the Chatham Islands, New Zealand.
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