Ingrid Albion has been helping save whales and dolphins for three decades, but has never seen such a scale before. There is no one in Australia.
Amidst the unspoiled beauty of McCurry Harbor, bordering the wild South Ocean on the west coast of inaccessible Tasmania, he is the biggest disaster of its kind seen in this region of the world.
Sometime last Sunday night, several hundred long-fine pilots were trapped in three spots inside and outside the whale harbor. Albion, a marine biologist and education official with the state’s Parks and Wildlife Service, was one of the first responders.
He saw marooned whales not far from the entrance known as Hell’s Gates, head-butting on a shallow shelf, and lined up along a nearby beach.
Sadly, those who were inside the harbor were known as baby boomers. Small enough to avoid the beach boycott, they circled the area singing for their mothers and swimming to rescuers to grab their legs. It’s made for an irresistible scene.
“As far as people understand, they must be calling each other and sounding reassuring to each other,” Albion said, after returning to the water for eight hours, he drank a cup of hot tea.
“It simply came to our notice then [at a mass stranding], There are many emotions. There are dead whales, there are live whales, running around, babies calling – a lot is going on.
“It’s not like people start crying, but you can just feel that people are really bonding with this whale. You stay with these whales for hours at a time … and it’s like having the life of an animal in your own hands. “
No one is sure what the pilot whale brought through Hales Gates. What is known is that the alarm was raised by the locals on a phone call on Monday morning.
Preliminary estimates put the number of whales trapped there at about 70, but after evaluation from water and air, it was found that the members of the pod had spread to three places. By the end of Monday, marine conservation teams and volunteers had arrived across the state, ready to begin rescue operations at first light on Tuesday.
By Wednesday, when about 200 carcasses were found in the tannin-stained waters of the huge harbor and the death toll had risen to about 380, it was clear that it was the largest mass whale record in Australia, and the worst to be recorded anywhere.
On Thursday, rescuers focused on reducing the number of survivors by rushing to get out of the head using the techniques involved attached to small boats. In the meantime, there was the issue of carcasses, which could deoisize the harbor as the harbors rotted, causing the local species to suffocate and attract sharks through the gates of hell.
The death toll was confirmed by Friday, including five whose preservation was too weak and had to be evangelized by gunfire. But there was also good news: earlier this week, 99 whales were rescued, more than authorities had expected.
“On Monday, we were trying to come up with a plan, we’d be happy if we said we’d take 90 out of twelve,” said Chris Carlyon, a government wildlife biologist.
Albion’s first task on Tuesday morning was to deal with whales on the beach. As wind gusts and rain began to fall, his first impression was that 30 or more of the coast had already been lost.
“We continued on the beach thinking we were looking at a group of dead whales but when we got to whale number 10 it was raising its head,” he says. “It creates a kind of feeling in you of ‘Oh, I can do something, I can make a difference here’.”
Over the next few hours, a team of about 20 people worked to save a few surviving whale-handlers. Others focused on the hundreds of people trapped in the deep water above the sand, an operation that would continue for several days.
For those who were in the water, the most urgent task was to properly and stabilize the whales, which weighed three tons, to prevent the whales from drowning.
For those who were on the beach it was cool to tow the animals under their animals with towels and slide mats so they could be lifted into a trailer and driven to a release point where they could return to the sea.
Although a global beach hotspot, Tasmania has not been a big episode for more than a decade. Albion first experienced a mass whale stranding and rescue in New Zealand about 30 years ago. For the past 25 years, he has been responsible for training Tasmanian government employees and volunteers in the use of soft dummy whales. For many it was their first experience of the real thing.
“There’s a bit of excitement and I think a lot of people were overwhelmed that there were a lot of whales on the beach, but when you start concentrating on one whale everyone is working together,” he said.
Throughout the week, the rescue team took a total of 100 people, including scientists, fish farmers, government officials and surf lifesavers. This weekend’s mood was a mixture of fatigue and sadness, but also silent satisfaction with what had been achieved.
Some recount the heartbreaking scene of the free whales coming back to the head to strand back to themselves in response to the cries of another member of the grain. About 10 people who came out with their heads cut off sold themselves again on Thursday night.
The rescue operation was a sensitive rollercoaster for Tony van den Aden – once a tedious and exciting one – led by Surf Lifesaving Tasmania’s chief executive and a rotating team of about 40 volunteers.
“It’s surreal,” he said after returning from the shelf on Thursday. “You can clearly see how soft and massive these animals are and they’re in so much trouble they almost know you’re trying to help.
“Being able to help them when they’re so weak is a rush, but gives an idea that you’re trying to make a difference.”
But the scene in McCurry Heads late Friday night took on an undeniably deadly shape. Seven more whales were released, but the view from the boat’s mull was admirable: a grain of sand turned into a makeshift morgue, several lifeless bodies half-sunk on the banks of the sand river.
Scientists said it was not clear if these were brought to the shelter, but there was no suggestion that it was anything more than a natural tragedy.
The pilot whale is an oceanic species that, despite its name, is a member of the dolphin family. They travel in large pods and are at risk of mass stranding when they come too close to the coast. Feedback from coastal areas can be played on their echolocation – clicks and other words they use to communicate and orient themselves when swimming in a pond, or chasing deep fish in the ocean. For came unusually close to the coast.
Authorities still weighed in on what to do with the corpses, but were leaning towards a sea settlement – pulling them out of their heads and tearing them to pieces with their blowers to help them drown.
Survivors were also expected to be able to transform into a smaller pod and avoid repetitive stranding. “Ideally they would team up again,” Carlion says. “They will reform these bonds and move things forward. This is clearly a stressful event for them. But we are optimistic. “
Internet geek. Wannabe bacon enthusiast. Web trailblazer. Music maven. Entrepreneur. Pop culture fan.