A mass stranding of pilot whales on Cheynes Beach in Australia began on July 25, 2023. ABC News (Australia) / YouTube screenshot

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Nearly 100 pilot whales became stranded on Cheynes Beach in Western Australia on Tuesday. Most of the pod, 52 whales, died overnight, and the rest have been euthanized, according to officials, as rescue efforts over two days have failed.

The pilot whales were first seen swimming in the area on Tuesday morning, but they covered much of Cheynes Beach by late afternoon, The Associated Press reported. Volunteers worked to rescue the surviving beached whales on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

“What we’re seeing is utterly heartbreaking and distressing,” Reece Whitby, environment minister for Western Australia, said. “It’s just a terrible, terrible tragedy to see these dead pilot whales on the beach.”

Hundreds of volunteers along with Perth Zoo veterinarians and experts in marine fauna worked to move the whales back into the water and were able to do so, but only temporarily, NPR reported. The whales became stranded again on the beach, and the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions announced plans to euthanize the remaining whales.

“DBCA officers and veterinarians have completed assessing the whales that re-stranded on Cheynes Beach this afternoon. Sadly, the decision had to be made to euthanise the remaining whales to avoid prolonging their suffering,” the department announced on Facebook. “It was a difficult decision for all involved however the welfare of the whales had to take precedence. We thank everyone who assisted with the attempt to save the whales over the last two days.”

According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, long-finned pilot whales are extremely social animals and are actually part of the dolphin family. Individuals bond closely to others in their pod and will stay together, even if it is dangerous to do so, the organization explained. In the case of the beached pilot whales on Cheynes Beach, wildlife experts predict the pod could have been experiencing stress or illness that caused them to become stranded together.

“The fact that they were in one area very huddled, and doing really interesting behaviors, and looking around at times, suggests that something else is going on that we just don’t know,” wildlife scientist Vanessa Pirotta, a wildlife scientist at Macquarie University, told The Associated Press.

Peter Hartley, a manager for the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, said that experts would be retrieving samples from the pilot whales in hopes of better understanding the pod before the whales are buried. 

“We’re going to be learning a lot about the behavior,” Hartley said, as reported by Time. “We’re also going to be learning a great deal about the genetics, the make up of that group, were they related?” 

However, the cause of the beaching event is likely to remain unknown, wildlife experts said.

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