Australians Rescue 120 Stranded False Killer Whales

WEST BUSSLETON, Australia, June 3, 2005 (ENS) - A successful rescue of 120 false killer whales began Thursday morning on the west coast of Australia when 15 whales were found stranded at the Dolphin Bay Boat Ramp in Geographe Bay, West Bussleton.

They were returned to the water and reunited with up to another 20 whales offshore, said manager for the Western Australia Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM).

CALM’s Blackwood District Manager Greg Mair said the aim was to herd the pod about 600 meters, or a little more than one-third of a mile, northeast to the site of another stranding of about 60 whales between Earnshaw and Bower Streets.

“Then we will attempt to maneuver those whales back into the Bay, reform the original pod and herd as many as we can back into open water," said Mair, anticipating bad weather and rough sea conditions. “The more animals we can keep together, the better their chances of not returning to the beach.”

But more whales soon beached themselves too, and CALM officials called for volunteer help. "We are desperate for more volunteers to come down here," Mair pleaded as 20 CALM officers and about 20 volunteers struggled to keep the whales wet and upright and facing the beach.

Local people responded quickly and by afternoon 1,500 people were at Geographe Bay.

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Some of the 120 false killer whales that stranded Thursday at Geographe Bay, Western Australia (Photo courtesy ABC TV)
“The main pod has split into four groups," said Mair. "One pod is close to the Dolphin Bay Boat Ramp. There’s about 100 animals in that pod - of those, about 60 have stranded themselves,” he said.

“Slightly to the west of the ramp, there’s another 30-40 stranded and there’s another two smaller strandings involving about 20 animals, one kilometer (.6 mile) further westward again."

“We’re also trying to keep the whales calm and discourage them from moving further along the beach and breaking up the main pod even further. Local vets are on site to assess their health and well-being," said Mair.

Mair said one whale died late Thursday morning and many of the others were showing signs of distress.

“Our long term strategy is to try and herd them out to sea, depending on weather conditions. We will try and regroup the whales as one pod using boats and vehicles, depending on the experts’ advice,” he said.

By five Thursday afternoon, the pod had been turned around and were swimming strongly out to sea. Mair said reports from several boats monitoring the mammals say they were five kilometers off the coast at that time and were travelling at a steady five knots per hour.

“They are behaving like whales. Even one particular whale that was looking quite ill is swimming well,” he said.

Officials re-estimated the number of whales involved in the stranding at about 120.

Mair said all 40 CALM officers involved in the rescue operation were overwhelmed at the community response. “The speed of the rescue and the sheer size of the rescue – we have never seen anything like it," he said.

“But while things are looking good, we have no guarantee that the whales won’t head back to land and re-strand.”

Mair said false killer whales were well known for travelling in pods and it is not uncommon for this species to strand.

In 1986, 114 false killer whales stranded en masse at Augusta; 96 were successfully returned to the sea.

In 1988 another large pod of false killer whales were stranded again near Augusta. Thirty-two of them were returned to sea, but a separate mass stranding of 24 whales about 30 kilometers east of Augusta were discovered late and 16 had to be euthanized.

False killer whales, Pseudorca crassidens, are black with a grey chest, and the sides of the head are sometimes light grey. A large male will be 5.4 meters (17 feet) long and weigh up two tons. Females are generally smaller, and calves weigh 80 kilos (175 pounds) at birth.

CALM deployed a spotter plane to undertake aerial surveillance at first light this morning. The plane covered the area between Peppermint Beach in Busselton down to Hamelin Bay and found no signs of the pod of whales. The plane will undertake further surveillance this afternoon when the weather clears.

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Dr. Judy Edwards is Western Australia Environment Minister(Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
Western Australia Environment Minister Judy Edwards said today that the rescue of 120 whales stranded near Busselton is a strong message to Japan that people do not want commercial whale harvesting.

“This is an amazing reflection of the depth of feeling people in Western Australia have for our marine life, especially whales,” she said.

“While governments can attempt to persuade Japan to drop its whaling operations under the pretense of science at a political level, the people involved in yesterday’s rescue have sent an even more potent message. Yesterday’s effort is a clear message to the world - Japan, stop the slaughter.”