June 2, 2005

Scores of Whales Stranded on Australian Beach

BUSSELTON, Australia -- Hundreds of volunteers worked throughout the day to free about 70 whales who stranded themselves on a beach near this Western Australian town.

One of the false killer whales died in the beaching but the massive public turnout managed to save the others, local wildlife officials said.

The state's Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) said a pod of more than 60 whales beached themselves near Busselton, 230 kilometres (143 miles) south of Perth, at about 8:00 am (2200 Wednesday GMT).

They were followed soon after by a second group of about 15 whales, which also beached on the coast. Another pod of several dozen animals was offshore and in danger of also coming ashore.

CALM spokesman Neil Taylor said the animals were false killer whales, a species five metres (16.5 feet) long which is involved in frequent strandings for reasons experts have yet to understand.

Taylor said hundreds of volunteers helped keep the stranded whales hydrated and eventually pushed them back into the sea.

"We've got about 100 metres (330 foot) of wall-to-wall whales," he told Sky News. "We have over 100 volunteers in wetsuits managing these, and they are being interchanged with other volunteers.

"Everyone is rallying around because it is a major, major exercise to rescue these whales.

"It's not uncommon for this species to strand," he said.

After several hours of effort, the volunteers managed to herd the beached whales and the offshore pod into one group and shepherd them towards open water, CALM managers said.

The rescue came just in time, with bad weather expected to hit the area after nightfall.

"We couldn't really keep them on the beach tonight simply because it is going to get too rough," CALM regional wildlife officer Warwick Roe said.

"We've had to go the option of getting them out tonight, work with the boats and take them as far as we can before it gets too dark.

"Fingers crossed, they will keep swimming out."