Weak Stranded Whales in Australia to Be Euthanized, Hundreds Already Dead

After one of the world's worst mass whale strandings, officials in Australia say it could take several days to clear away all the dead bodies, while more animals may need to be euthanized.

More than 450 long-finned pilot whales have beached themselves on the shores of Macquarie Harbour, Tasmania—an island state of Australia located to the south of the mainland—since Monday.

Around 380 of these whales have died, and now authorities will have to dispose of the carcasses. The plan being develop involves either towing the dead animals out to sea or loading them onto a boat before dumping them in the water.

"Realistically it could take several days. We are intending to start tomorrow. If we get a method that works efficiently it may be by early next week we will have made a real dent," Nic Deka, from the Tasmanian government's Parks and Wildlife Service, said at a media briefing, according to Reuters.

So far, a rescue team involving more than 60 government officials and volunteers has managed to return around 90 of the whales to the sea by attaching slings to the animals and pulling them with boats.

And rescuers are hoping to save a small group of the whales that are still alive—efforts which could take another day, officials said.

"There is a likelihood that we will be continuing the rescue efforts tomorrow," Deka said. "While we have live animals that have a chance and we have the crew to shift them, we will give it a go."

But officials said four whales that were too exhausted to reach safety had to be euthanized, and more could follow on Friday.

It can take anywhere from several days to weeks for a beached whale to die, as the stranded animal is slowly crushed to death under the weight of its own body, without the buoyancy of seawater to support itself.

"Most large whales, when they come to shore, they're already dead," Craig Harms, an aquatic animal veterinarian at North Carolina State University in Morehead City, told National Geographic. "It's a long, slow suffocation."

stranded pilot whale
Dead Pilot Whale at Macquarie Harbour on September 24 in Strahan, Australia. Rescuers are working to save hundreds of whales stranded in Macquarie Harbour near Strahan on Tasmania's west coast. Steve Bell/Getty Images

To make matters worse, whale skin blisters when exposed to sunlight for long periods, while scavengers such as seagulls will sometimes pick at the bodies, even while the animals are still alive.

"The gulls really like to go for the eyes, and they don't worry about waiting until the animal is dead," Harms said.

In instances where rescuers believe a whale can't be saved, a decision is taken to euthanize the animal in order to lessen its suffering. This can be done by administering euthanasia drugs, cutting a major artery or even using explosives for large whales. Smaller whales are sometimes shot with firearms.

"For large whales, very sadly, it could take weeks for them to die, and they get blistered in the sun, so you would be thinking about an ethical and humane thing to do," Mike Double, a zoologist who heads Australian Marine Mammal Centre, told Reuters.

The rescue effort and euthanization has been physically and emotionally draining for those involved, according to Deka, who said that mental health services would be provided for those who needed them.

"The emotional toll can be significant," Kris Carlyon, a biologist from Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service, told Reuters. "Most crew are really focused on just getting the job done, so it might be a little bit later that they start to really think about it, and it starts to sink in."

The whale stranding is the worst in Australia's history and among the largest ever to occur anywhere in the world, The Guardian reported.