Rescuers release Australia's beached whales
Tue, Mar 24, 2009

PERTH, Australia (AFP) - Rescuers on Tuesday used trucks and cranes fitted with giant slings in a bid to transport 11 surviving whales from a mass beaching on Australia's west coast to a safe harbour for release.

The survivors were among a pod of about 90 long-finned pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins that stranded in Hamelin Bay, south of the city of Perth, on Monday.

About 70 volunteers worked through the night to try to keep the remaining 17 animals alive, said conservation department spokeswoman Leanne O'Rourke, adding that despite efforts, some of the creatures had died.

At dawn a risky operation began to transport the 11 survivors by road to nearby Flinders Bay, a safer and more sheltered area for release.

"They were using trucks, and they were using cranes to get them onto the trucks with slings," O'Rourke told AFP.

"We did lose a few overnight and it's a very traumatic experience for the animals so there's definitely a lot of risk involved. But at this stage it's all operating fairly smoothly so we're very hopeful that we can get them out to sea and healthy and happy," she said.

A mother whale and her calf were the first to make the 20 kilometre (12 mile) road trip to the spot where all the mammals -- extremely social creatures -- were simultaneously released.

Eight of the 11 had made it out to deeper water by sunset, with the remaining three straggling nearer to shore in a weakened state, she said.

"(The rescuers) are just going to continue to monitor their progress and condition tonight and tomorrow," she said.

About 350 whales have beached in the area in recent years, of which 35 were long-finned pilot whales.

Road rescue operations between Hamelin and Flinders bays have been attempted twice before, in 1986 and 1988, but never with the long-finned pilot species, O'Rourke said.

The latest beaching takes the total number of whales stranded around southern Australia and Tasmania in the past four months to more than 400.

Earlier this month rescuers saved 54 pilot whales after nearly 200 of the giant creatures beached themselves on King Island off Australia's southern coast.

In November, more than 150 pilot whales died after beaching themselves on Tasmania's west coast and in January, 48 sperm whales died on a sandbar at the north of the island.

The phenomenon of whale strandings and the causes remain the subject of scientific debate.


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