Whale carcasses towed out to sea after mass stranding on Tasmania’s west coast

Days after more than 200 whales became stranded on a remote beach on Tasmania’s west coast, authorities have begun the mammoth task of towing the carcasses out to deep water.

Rescuers managed to save a number of the pilot whales after 230 became stranded on Ocean Beach, near Macquarie Heads, on Wednesday.

Now, attention has turned to the disposal of the bodies of those that could not be saved.

Unlike a mass stranding two years ago where carcasses were left to decompose on the shore, authorities are towing them into the deeper waters of the Indian Ocean, 40 kilometers off the coast of Strahan.

The whale carcasses are tied to longlines and towed by boats owned and operated by fish farms in the area, and officials hope they will disperse and decompose instead of washing back up on the beach.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania (NRE Tas) said the majority were removed this morning and the focus would now turn to the remaining carcasses in Macquarie Harbour.

A small number remain on Ocean Beach and will be buried when conditions permit, Incident Controller Brendon Clark said.

The carcasses were tied to longlines and towed by fish farms in the area.(ABC News)

“Yesterday, we undertook extensive aerial surveillance of the area, before moving into this part of the operation,” Mr Clark said.

“During that exercise, we located some live whales in Macquarie Harbor and were able to refloat and release these in deep waters.

“Once again, I would like to thank the NRE staff, volunteers, salmon companies and local community for their assistance with this operation.”

Whale carcasses are seen strung along a rope as they're towed out to sea.
The carcasses are expected to initially drift south and eventually sink in the ocean.(Supplied: Huon Aquaculture)

West coast Mayor Shane Pitt said it was good news the carcasses had been removed so quickly after the stranding.

“The feedback I’ve been getting back from the public is pretty good,” he said.

“Even though it’s been pretty dramatic circumstances, everybody’s pretty happy with how things panned out in the end.

“It’s pretty important for tourism — that’s what Strahan’s main economy is — so it’s very important.

“Given that it’s coming up to a long weekend, and also the school holiday period … a lot of residents on the west coast head down to Macquarie heads … so it’s really good news that they’ve been able to remove the dead carcases back out to sea.”

Dozens of whales beached.
The mass stranding is the second in two years at Ocean Beach, on Tasmania’s west coast.(ABC News: Lachlan Bennett)

On Saturday, several surviving whales that had been successfully refloated became stranded again in shallower waters within the Macquarie Harbor precinct.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment said crews responded and worked to free the animals throughout the course of the afternoon.

Now the rescue efforts are complete, NRE Tas said it would look at rationalizing crew and resources and would scale back the operation.

Beached whale on a remote beach.
Scientists will analyze what the whales ate, in the hope of determining whether they chased prey into shallow water.(ABC News: Monte Bovilli)

Mary-Anne Lea, professor of marine/polar predator ecology at the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, said dumping the carcasses at sea was a “trade-off between managing the risk between human health and recreational use of those areas”.

“Obviously whales are large and they smell, and they take a long time to decompose,” she said.

“In terms of taking them out to sea where they can float or sink and decompose naturally, that’s a good thing because it’s a resource for other animals in the ocean.”

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Whale stranding survivors are taken from the beach by vehicle and towed out to sea

Kris Carlyon, from the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Tasmania, said the disposal method was not likely to pose a threat from increased shark activity.

“That will be some distance offshore, winds and currents and swell conditions will spread those animals apart quite rapidly,” he said.

NRE Tas said carcasses may wash up on local beaches over the next few weeks from currents and tidal movements and urged people to report any sightings to the Whale Hotline on 0427 WHALES.


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