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At least 380 whales die in mass stranding on Tasmanian coast

HOBART, AUSTRALIA: At least 380 whales have died in a mass stranding in southern Australia, officials said yesterday, with rescuers managing to free just a few dozen survivors.

Nearly the entire pod of 460 long-finned pilot whales stuck in Macquarie Harbour, on the rugged and sparsely populated west coast of Tasmania, have now perished.

"We have got a more accurate count and we can confirm that 380 whales are dead," Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service manager Nic Deka said.

"There's around 30 left still alive but the good news is that we have saved 50," he said, describing the rescue effort as emotionally taxing.

The first of the giant mammals were found on Monday, sparking a major effort to free them from a sandbar accessible only by boat.

It is the largest mass stranding ever recorded in Tasmania, and likely the biggest in the country's history.

A rescue crew of 60 conservationists, skilled volunteers and local fish farm workers has concentrated efforts on a group of whales partially submerged in the water.

The rescuers have spent two days wading in the cold shallows to free the still living creatures, using boats fitted with special slings to guide them back to the open ocean.

They are now racing to free as many of the 30 remaining live whales as possible.

"They're focused on the job - it's demanding work, some of them are up to their chest in cold water so we're trying to rotate the crews," Mr Deka said.

"Its very draining physically. It's also draining emotionally."

The causes of mass strandings remain unknown, even to scientists who have been studying the phenomenon for decades.

However, some researchers have suggested the highly sociable pilot whales may have gone off track after feeding close to the shoreline or by following one or two whales that strayed.

Tasmanian environment department marine biologist Kris Carlyon said it was a "natural event" with strandings of the species occurring regularly throughout history in both southern Australian and neighbouring New Zealand.

"We do step in and respond in these situations, but as far as being able to prevent these occurring in the future, there's really little that we can do," he said. - AFP

WORLD