To report a whale stranding, call the Whale Hotline
0427 – WHALES
(0427 942 537)
Mass stranding of pilot whales,
Of all Australian States, whale strandings occur most frequently in Tasmania. A disproportionate number of these strandings have occurred in the Circular Head and Macquarie Harbour - Ocean Beach areas.
Common dolphins and pygmy right whales, both of which typically strand singularly, are the most commonly reported species reported at stranding events. Sperm whales and long-finned pilot whales are also frequently reported, the latter usually in herds. In 1992, for example, 198 individuals were reported stranded near Bicheno. A detailed record of Tasmanian strandings is given on our pages on whales, and a map of whale strandings around the Tasmanian coast is available online.
Most strandings are reported in the summer months, although it is not clear whether this is a consequence of increased human activity along the coast during this time of the year or an increase in the number of whales passing the coast.
Why whales strand
A rare Brydes whale, the only known stranding,
is taken to the Queen Victoria Museum after
being struck by a ship in Bass Strait
(Photo courtesy of the Examiner)
The reasons whales strand are not yet fully understood. Fanciful explanations have ranged from the Romans' belief that stranded whales were being punished by Neptune, to more recent, but equally dubious, theories about suicide. While some single strandings may be accounted for by a whale dying at sea and being washed ashore, many strandings are believed to occur due to other factors. It is likely that these factors act in combination.
Occasionally, stranded whales are found to be suffering from infections of the inner ear which may affect their ability to navigate using echo location. Confronted with rough seas, a single individual may stray too close to the shore. If such an animal touches the bottom, the resultant distress calls can lead to the rest of the pod encountering a similar fate as they attempt to maintain the social cohesion of the herd.
Also, certain topographical features may lead to strandings. Wide, gently sloping beaches are not detected by the reflection of sonar pulses. This may result in the whales approaching too close to the shore. Heavy seas combined with ebb-tides may result in the pod becoming stranded. Similarly, bays with narrow mouths flanked by rocky headlands may give the impression of being trapped with no way out. This can cause panic which may result in beaching.
How you can help stranded whales
As a result of experiences gained in a number of strandings around the Tasmanian coast, the Parks and Wildlife Service and Biodiversity Conservation Branch of DPIPWE have developed a strategy that aims to maximise the success of rescue efforts. In the case of single strandings of small whales such as dolphins, it may be possible to successfully return the animal to the sea with little assistance. However, a mass stranding is a more formidable problem, and requires a coordinated approach.
- The first priority in any attempt to save a stranded pod of whales is to seek help. Contact the Whale Hotline Number 0427-whales (0427 942 537) or any authority which can pass the information on. Provide details on the exact location of the stranded animals, their numbers, condition, the species (if you know), their size -- any details which may be useful.
- Overheating is a big problem for stranded whales. Dig holes for the flippers so that they are hanging free. Allow water to enter these holes to assist in cooling, as the flippers and tail are important areas for heat exchange. Cover the body from the burning and drying effects of sun and wind -- towels or seaweed will suffice -- but don't cover the blowhole. Wet the animal down, ensuring that water does not enter the blowhole.
- Once this is done, it is important to ensure that the animals are stabilised. Whales can survive for a considerable time providing the dangers to them are minimised. After removing nearby sharp objects, such as shells, attempt to place the whale on its belly. However do not use the dorsal or pectoral fins to lever. Instead roll the body. Water can enter the blowhole causing the animal to drown if they are left lying on their side.
Despite their formidable size, whales appear reluctant to cause any harm to their rescuers. Nonetheless, accidents can happen. Don't stand on the shoreward side of a whale, as a wave can easily roll the animal on top of you. Beware of sudden movements of the tail. Most importantly, beware of hypothermia. Tasmanian waters are cold. Rescuers should be well equipped with thick wetsuits and a change of warm clothes. Remain well aware of how long you have spent in the water.
Wildcare whale rescue training
If you are interested in assisting with whale rescues then join WILDCARE Inc and register for whale rescue on the membership form. You will receive information about WILDCARE Inc Whale rescue courses, formation of First Response teams and will be contacted in the event of strandings where assistance from volunteers is required.
Department of Primary Industries and Water: The Tasmanian Whale Stranding Handbook
Dalton, T. and Isaacs, R. (1992). The Australian Guide to Whale Watching. Weldon Publishing, Sydney.
Evans, P. G. H. (1987). The Natural History of Whales and Dolphins. Facts on File Publications, New York.
Tucker, M. (1989). Whales and Whale Watching in Australia. Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service.