Australian officials were planning the grim task of disposing of almost 400 whale carcasses on Thursday as hopes faded there would be many more survivors of one of the world’s biggest mass strandings of the mammals.


Rescuers had managed to free almost 90 of the long-finned pilot whales beached off the country’s remote southern coast by late Thursday. The majority of those freed had reached deeper water, officials said, but at least four were likely to be euthanised and others might return when the tide turns.


The clock was ticking for a remaining small group of whales still floundering in shallow water on a wide sandbank, four days after the 470-strong pod was first spotted off the northwest coast of the island state of Tasmania.

“Beyond the next 24 hours, any remaining animals that are alive will be less viable,” said Nic Deka, the incident controller for the state government’s Parks and Wildlife Service.

As result, authorities were developing a plan to dispose of at least 380 whales at sea, an operation that Deka said could take days.

“Our preference is for disposal at sea, we’re still taking expert advice as to exactly where the drop off point may be,” Deka said, noting the decomposing whales could pose an environmental health risk.

Euthanising those animals too exhausted to swim to safety was another daunting but necessary task, experts said.

“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 that leads the Australian Marine Mammal Centre, told Reuters.

While larger whales can require a lethal dose of potassium chloride to the heart or explosives, smaller whales like the long-finned pilots are usually shot with a firearm.

The stranding, the biggest on record in modern Australia and one of the largest in the world, has drawn attention to a natural phenomenon that remains largely a mystery to scientists.

A rescue team of more than 60 government scientists and volunteers had dashed to the remote location, braving freezing cold waters in an arduous refloating process. As many as four or five people per whale were needed to attach slings to the animals and guide them as they were pulled to deeper water by boats.