Ingrid Albion has been helping save whales and dolphins for three decades, but she’s never seen anything on a scale like this before. Nobody in Australia has it.

Within the rugged beauty of Port Macquarie, a land border of the Southern Ocean on the remote western coast of Tasmania, it has seen The largest disaster of its kind in this part of the world.

Sometime overnight last Sunday, Hundreds of long-finned pilot whales are stranded in three areas inside and outside the port. Albion, marine biologist and education officer with state parks and wildlife service, He was one of the first responders.

Found stranded whales rolling on a shallow sand strip inside their heads, not far from the entrance known as Hells Gates, and lined up along the nearby ocean shore.

Sadly, those inside the port were accompanied by their young offspring, known as calves. Small enough to avoid being caught in the beach, they roamed the area singing to their mothers and swimming in front of the rescuers to hit their legs. It made for an overwhelming scene.

Hundreds of whales in a port in Tasmania
Hundreds of pilot whales and calves are trapped inside Port Macquarie, Tasmania. Photo: AFP / Getty Images

“As far as humans can understand, they definitely call each other and that seems to reassure each other,” says Albion, drinking a cup of hot tea after recovering eight hours a day in water.

“It was a really messy event, and if this is your first time [at a mass stranding]There are a lot of feelings. There are dead whales, there are live whales, there are crushes, and there are children calling out – there’s a lot going on.

“It’s not like people start crying, but you can just feel that people are really attached to this whale. Sometimes you are with those whales for a few hours … as if you are living an animal life in your hands.”

Nobody is sure why pilot whales entered the gates of Hell. What is known is that the alarm was raised in a police phone call by a local resident early Monday morning.

A woman in a polar red wool sweater with a zipper
Ingrid Albion was first exposed to a mass strand of whales and rescued in New Zealand about 30 years ago. Over the past 25 years, I have trained staff and volunteers for the Tasmanian government. Photo: Tasmania Parks and Wildlife
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A preliminary estimate indicated that around 70 whales were stranded, but this number soon increased to 270 after assessments from water and air revealed that whale members had spread to three locations. By the end of Monday, marine conservation teams and volunteers from across the state had arrived. Ready to launch a rescue campaign at first light on Tuesday.

By Wednesday, when nearly 200 bodies were found aimlessly in the tannin-tainted waters of the wide harbor, and the death toll had jumped to around 380, this was clearly the largest whale in Australia ever, and among the worst anywhere. else.

On Thursday, rescuers focused on decreasing the number of survivors, and raced to get the largest number of survivors through their heads using a technique that involved belts attached to the side of small boats. Meanwhile, there was the issue of corpses, which could remove oxygen from the harbor as it decomposes, suffocating native species, and luring sharks through the gates of Hell.

For water rescuers, the most urgent task was to correct and stabilize the bodies of whales, which can weigh up to three tons, to prevent them from drowning.
For rescuers in the water, the most urgent task is to correct the bodies of whales, which can weigh up to three tons, to prevent them from drowning. Photo: Brodie Weeding / AFP / Getty Images

By Friday, the death toll was confirmed, including five who were too weak to be rescued and had to be killed by a bullet. But there was also good news: 94 whales were rescued, far more than the authorities had expected at the start of the week.

Government wildlife biologist Chris Carleone says it was a “very impressive” result given how much worse it could be. “On Monday, while we were trying to make plans, if we said we’re getting 90 from the model we’d be happy.”

Albion’s first mission early on Tuesday was to deal with whales on the ocean shore. With the wind blowing and rain falling, her first impression was that the thirty or so along the beach had already been lost.

“We were driving to the beach thinking that we were looking at a group of dead whales, but when we got to whale number 10, it was raising its head up,” she says. It creates a kind of ‘Oh, I can do something, I can make a difference here’ feeling in you. ”

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Over the next few hours, a team of about 20 people worked to save the handful of whales left on the beach. Others focused on the hundreds stranded in deep water chest up to the sand, a process that would last for days.

For those in the water, the most urgent task was to correct and stabilize the whale’s bodies, which can weigh up to three tons, to prevent them from drowning.

The rescue team slides on mats under the whales so they can be hoisted onto a trailer and driven to a launch point where they can swim back into the ocean.
Rescuers slide mats under the whales so they can be lifted onto a trailer and taken to a launch point where they can swim back into the ocean. Photo: Tasmania Police Bulletin / EPA

For those on the beach, the goal was to cool the animals by covering them with towels and sliding mats under their stomachs so that they could be hoisted onto a trailer and driven to a launch point where they could swim back into the ocean.

Despite being a global beach hotspot, Tasmania It hasn’t seen a major episode in over a decade. Albion first experienced mass whale delinquency and rescue in New Zealand nearly 30 years ago. For the past 25 years, she has been responsible for training Tasmanian government employees and volunteers in the use of inflatable doll whales. For many, this was their first experience with the real thing.

“There is a little excitement and I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the presence of so many whales on the beach, but when you start to focus on the whale, everyone works out together.”

The rescue team over the course of the week totaled around 100 people, including scientists, fish farmers, government and rescue officials. The mood late this week was a mixture of exhaustion and sadness, but also quiet satisfaction with what was achieved.

Some have described the heartbreaking scene of a liberated whale turning towards heads only to turn in response to a scream from another member of the capsule and cut itself off again. About 10 of those who had been taken overhead were brought back to shore Thursday night.

For Tony Van Den Enden, the CEO of Surf Lifesaving Tasmania who oversees a league team of about 40 volunteers, the rescue was an emotional rollercoaster – which was both frustrating and exhilarating.

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“It’s surreal,” he said after returning from the sand on Thursday. “You clearly see how gentle and large these creatures are, and while they are in great distress, they almost seem to know that you are trying to help.

“Being able to help when they’re so vulnerable is modest in some way, but it also gives the feeling that you are trying to make a difference.”

Tony Van den Enden, CEO of Surf Life Saving Tasmania, said:
“Being able to help when they’re in danger is somehow humble, but it also gives a sense that you are trying to make a difference,” says Tony Van Den Enden, CEO of Surf Life Saving Tasmania. Photography: Rob Blakers / Guardian Australia

But the scene in Macquarie Heads late Friday remained undeniably bleak. Seven more whales were freed, but the view from the ramp of the boat was realistic: a sand bar turned into a makeshift morgue, with dozens of discarded corpses half submerged across the sand pier.

Scientists said it was not clear what drove them into the port, but there was no indication that it was merely a natural tragedy.

Pilot whales are an ocean-dwelling species – despite their name – they are a member of the dolphin family. They travel in large pods and are vulnerable to mass filaments when they get very close to shore. Comments from the coast can wreak havoc with echolocation – the clicks and other sounds they use to communicate and orient themselves when swimming in a pod, or chasing fish deep in the ocean. Theories that this pod may have come unusually close to shore to feed before it gets into trouble.

Authorities were still weighing what to do with the corpses, but they leaned towards clearing the ocean – pulling them out through the heads and slitting their grease to help them drown.

As for the survivors, it was hoped that they would be able to transform into a smaller room and avoid the recurrence of delinquency. Ideally, they would regroup, says Carleone. They will fix those links and follow things up. This was clearly a stressful event for them. But we are optimistic. “