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Australian pilot whales: Tasmanian officials race to rescue hundreds of stranded animals

About 270 pilot whales are stranded in Strahan, a small town in Tasmania, an island state off the southern coast of mainland Australia. They are scattered along two sandbars and the strip of beach, according to the Tasmanian Marine Conservation Program, which is leading the rescue operation.

“Late yesterday, we had about a third of the animals already deceased,” wildlife biologist Kris Carlyon said at a news conference Tuesday morning. He added that it was difficult to make a more specific estimate of the deaths, as the whales were spread over a large area and some places were inaccessible.

“This is a really challenging event,” he said. “In terms of mass strandings in Tasmania, this is among the hardest we̵

7;ve ever faced.”

Other potential problems include the unpredictable tide that is pouring in and the possibility that distressed whales may attract sharks to the area.

Rescue teams, numbering around 60, include volunteers, police, fish farms and the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service. As time passes, they are forced to triage starting with the whales that have the best chance of success, Carlyon said.

First, rescuers will try to “float” the whales “(by moving them) into the water,” Carlyon said – and if that doesn’t work, or if it causes the whales to behave erratically, they’ll switch to a other strategy.

The rescue mission will likely take days, raising concerns that the whales may not live that long. But the current weather keeps the whales moist and cool, which is “ideal,” Carlyon said – if conditions stay that way, the whales can survive a few more days.

It’s not entirely clear what caused the whales to sink ashore, though Carlyon added that there have been a few other mass strandings in similar locations. The whales may have been lured after feeding near the coast; or, some whales may have gotten too close to a “simple mishap” and the rest of the herd followed.

One of the sandbanks where the pod of whales washed up in Tasmania, Australia.

After rescuers hope to save the remaining whales, they will have another tough task ahead of them: moving dozens of whale carcasses from within the harbor to the sea. Typically when stranding occurs, experts prefer to leave the bodies, Carlyon said, but can’t do so in this case because the area is too close to human campgrounds and activity sites.

Officials warned the public to stay out of the area and not to approach the beach by boat.

Tasmania is the only Australian state where mass beaching of whales and dolphins regularly occurs, according to the state’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

These mass strandings often involve social species living together in large groups, according to the department. Pilot whales, sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins are the most frequently beached species.

Whales have “very close family ties,” so if one whale is stranded, others may hear its calls and follow, leading to a whole herd stranded, according to the department.

Jack Guy and CNN’s Sol Han contributed to this report.

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