A rescue effort to save a pod of pilot whales stranded at Cheynes Beach last week ended sadly when, despite the efforts of volunteers and Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions staff, the surviving re-floated whales returned to the beach and had to be euthanised. The pod of 97 long-finned pilot whales stranded themselves last Tuesday afternoon after they were first seen swimming in a large group on Monday evening. The DBCA suspended its official rescue efforts as night fell on Tuesday, though some volunteers remained. By Wednesday morning, more than half the pod had died. About 250 volunteers, many of whom had come from Albany and towns in the Great Southern, with some travelling from as far as Perth to help, joined 100 local and State DBCA staff to carry the 45 living whales one by one in slings from the shore to the water. The animals were gathered into a pod in the hope they would regain enough strength to regroup and swim out to sea. Wetsuit-clad volunteers rotated in shifts to stand alongside the whales for hours in the cold water, monitoring their condition and making sure they stayed upright. The volunteers were supported with cups of hot tea, soup, and hot water bottles to keep them warm in the cold conditions. About 3.30pm, the volunteers released the pod, and splashed their hands on the surface of the water for several minutes to encourage the animals to swim away. Shortly before the plan to release the whales was announced, DBCA south coast conservation program leader Deon Utber told those gathered on the beach they did not have enough resources to float the animals again if they re-beached. “All I can ask is that everyone pushes their hope out towards these animals . . . when they come to shore, we may just need some shore-based palliative care,” Mr Utber said. The whales swam offshore as a mass for about an hour, and were monitored by people on kayaks, a jet ski, and a boat. But they did not move out to sea as hoped, and began swimming back towards the beach. By 5pm, the rescue team was re-tasked to carry the whales from where they had stopped in knee-deep water, and on to the shore so they could be assessed by vets. The effort took almost two hours, and as night fell the temperature dropped and a harsh wind began blowing, but the volunteers continued their work. Many of the whales lay motionless on the beach with their eyes closed, and some let out quiet vocalisations as volunteers poured buckets of seawater on to them. Once all the whales had been brought ashore, the volunteers were taken further up the beach to the incident control centre so a team of vets, including those from local practices and Perth Zoo, could assess the animals. Just before 7pm, the sound of gunshots rang out from the beach, and incident controller and DBCA south coast regional manager Peter Hartley confirmed the whales were being euthanised. Mr Hartley confirmed the “very sad moment” was necessary after veterinary staff had assessed the whales’ health. “The veterinarian team went and did an assessment,” he said. “They determined that the animals were suffering. “They made a recommendation that was in the best interest of the animal, and the welfare of those animals — they were put down. “It’s a very sad moment, probably in the top 10 low points of my 34 years in wildlife management.” Many volunteers began leaving the checkpoint quickly after the gunshots began being fired in an emotional scene. Volunteer Jordan Robinson — who travelled to Cheynes Beach from Perth — said she was “devastated” by the turn of events. “We did as much as we could to help them,” she said. The dead whales were removed from the beach and taken to a waste facility on Thursday morning. Perth Zoo veterinarian Taylor Hawkins, who was part of the team that assessed the whales before they were euthanised, said the reason they beached was unknown. “There’s theories of orcas in the area, although I think it may be out of season,” he said. “Sometimes an individual in the group can be unwell, and that animal beaches and the whole group is so socially dependent on each other that they all just beach because one individual is sick and needs to beach. “It’s why they can just continue to re-beach. “These events are horrific for people to watch, and that’s why we put a lot of effort into trying to get them back out, and sometimes we win, sometimes we don’t.” He said the team of vets that assessed the animals on Wednesday night found they were suffering. “As they started to re-strand, we were just assessing them one by one, and it was very clear that each animal was suffering or beginning to suffer, and as time went on, they were definitely getting worse and appearing worse on the beach,” Mr Hawkins said. “We were really concerned for their welfare going forward. “As they were sitting, they were becoming progressively more lethargic, and we know that these marine mammals are made to be floating in the ocean, and gravity really takes its toll on them.” On Thursday, Mr Hartley praised the volunteers who spent hours with the whales as “the very best of humanity”. Some volunteers expressed frustration that the rescue effort did not continue on Tuesday night, and said communication on Wednesday could have been improved. Colleen Smetham and her husband chose to stay with the whales for about an hour after DBCA suspended its rescue efforts on Tuesday night, and returned to help on Wednesday, spending hours in the ocean. “I just think if more people could have helped (on Tuesday) night, more whales would have survived,” she said. Volunteer Jo Mitchell, who also spent Wednesday helping the whales, said she thought there was not enough communication in the situation. “I believe there wasn’t enough communication, definitely, between the volunteers and people like (DBCA) and the vets,” Ms Mitchell said. “We weren’t told what the next stages would be, what was happening, or told how to do things properly. “It was just a case of ‘all right, we need help bringing these whales in’. “We weren’t told why they were bringing them in. “It was only a few hours later that I learned they were bringing them in to euthanise them.” In response to complaints from volunteers, Mr Hartley said the incident response team had done everything it could to save the whales in challenging conditions. “I don’t think we could have done anything more,” he said. “There have been questions about why didn’t we do anything on Tuesday night — well, it wasn’t possible with the tide going out, the numbers of animals, (and ensuring) the safety of responders and volunteers. “There was really nothing we could really do.” Mr Hartley said despite the sad outcome, there was a silver lining as scientific samples taken from the whales may help answering the “million-dollar question” of what causes the whale species to strand. Blood samples as well as swabs from the blowholes and mouths of the deceased animals will be used in research, and post-mortems will be undertaken on some of the whales. The drone photos and footage taken of the pod before it stranded on Tuesday — believed to be the first time this behaviour has been documented — will also contribute to the research.