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Around 200 pilot whales have perished after washing up on an exposed, wave-swept beach on Tasmania’s rugged west coast, Australian rescuers said on Thursday.

Only 35 of the approximately 230 whales discovered on the beach the day before were still alive, state wildlife department operations director Brendon Clark told reporters at the scene.

Aerial footage has revealed dozens of glowing black mammals strewn across Ocean Beach, stuck on the waterline where the freezing Southern Ocean meets the sand.

“We have approximately 35 surviving animals on the beach and this morning the focus will be on rescuing and releasing these animals,” said Clark, who is handling the incident.

“Unfortunately, we have a high mortality rate on this particular stranding. This is mainly due to the exposure conditions on Ocean Beach,” he added.

“The environmental conditions, the surf there on the exposed west coast, Ocean Beach, are definitely taking their toll on the animals.”

Locals had covered the whales with blankets and doused them with buckets of water to keep them alive after they were found on the beach.

Two years ago, the nearby port of Macquarie was the scene of the largest mass stranding on record in the country, involving nearly 500 pilot whales.

More than 300 pilot whales died in the stranding, despite the efforts of dozens of volunteers who labored for days in the freezing Tasmanian waters to free them.

Clark said conditions in the last stranding were tougher for the whales than two years ago, when the animals were in “much more sheltered waters”.

Distress signals

Rescuers sorted through the whales during the last stranding to identify those with the best chance of survival, he said.

“Today the focus will be on rescue and release operations.”

The cause of the mass strandings is still not fully understood.

Scientists have suggested they could be caused by deflected pods after feeding too close to shore.

Pilot whales, which can grow to over six meters (20 feet) in length, are highly social and can follow stray companions into danger.

This sometimes happens when old, sick, or injured animals swim ashore and other group members follow, trying to respond to distress signals from the trapped whale.

Others believe that gently sloping beaches like those found in Tasmania confuse whale sonar into thinking they are open water.

The latest stranding came shortly after a dozen young male sperm whales were reported dead in a separate mass stranding on King Island, between Tasmania and the Australian mainland.

The d*ath of the young whales could be a case of “misadventure”, wildlife biologist Kris Carlyon of the state government’s conservation agency told local newspaper Mercury.

In neighboring New Zealand, strandings are also common.

Around 300 animals are stranded there each year, according to official figures, and it is not uncommon for groups of 20 to 50 pilot whales to strand themselves there.

But the numbers can run into the hundreds when a “super pod” is involved – in 2017 there was a massive stranding of almost 700 pilot whales.

(AFP)

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