Mass whale stranding on Cheynes Beach: DBCA incident controller confirms 45 whales euthanised

Kasey Gratton and Eliza KavanaghAlbany Advertiser
VideoSeveral pilot whales released on Wednesday afternoon have now beached themselves again, with volunteers desperately trying to keep the remaining creatures alive.

UPDATED: The remaining 45 whales at Cheynes Beach have been euthanised under the directive of veterinary staff after an exhausting rescue effort by 250 volunteers.

After veterinary staff assessed the health of the whales, incident controller and DBCA south coast regional manager Peter Hartley confirmed the “sad moment” the rescue efforts had halted.

“The veterinarian team went and did an assessment, they determined that the animals were suffering,” he said.

“They made a recommendation that in the best interest of the animal and the welfare of those animals they were put down,”

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“It’s a very sad moment, probably in the top 10, low points of my 34 years in wildlife management.”

The tragic end to the rescue mission comes after the 97-strong pod beached itself at Cheynes Beach near Albany on Tuesday.

Mr Hartley said authorities would be taking samples from the bodies of the whales to help determine what led to the tragic beaching.

Volunteer Jordan Robinson — who travelled to Cheynes Beach from Perth — said she was “devastated” by the turn of events on Wednesday night.

“We did as much as we could to help them,” she said.

On Wednesday afternoon several pilot whales beached themselves again after volunteers desperately managed to push some of the creatures back out to sea.

By 6.15pm Wednesday, the mood on the beach took a grim turn as the whales returned back to the sand.

Many of the whales lay motionless with their eyes closed and faces pressed into the sand while some could still be heard vocalising.

Volunteers splashed water on the animals after they were turned upright to keep them breathing.

People cried hearing the whales gasping for air.

After experiencing a glimmer of hope this morning when the whales reformed a pod, come nightfall several volunteers appeared exhausted as temperatures dropped.

After DBCA south coast conservation program leader Dion Utber said the whales would not be separated, a later statement was issued to say “nonviable” whales would be taken out of the water.

“Before I spoke about the assessment that the team was doing out there, they’ve gone through and assessed, there are some animals that are looking fairly viable and there are a lot that are looking very vulnerable,” he said.

Mr Utber thanked the 250 volunteers who had spent hours assiting.

He said the DBCA team and vets from Perth Zoo would manage any whales that become beached again in the “most ethical, kind and caring way that we can”.

“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,” he said.

“We won’t be working through into the night, we don’t have the resources or the capabilities to sustain what we’ve done today through to tonight.

Stranded pilot whales beached again after being released.
Camera IconStranded pilot whales beached again after being released. Credit: Albany Advertiser

“We’re going through an assessing each of those animals that came back to shore and we’re going through the process that we need to go through.”

A female volunteer was understood to have been injured by a whale during the rescue operation.

The volunteer emerged from the water about 5pm clutching her torso before she was attended to by paramedics who were stationed at the beach.

Earlier today. . .

The devastating sight of 97 beached whales came into view as the sun rose on Cheynes Beach on Wednesday morning and with daylight the sad news that some of their numbers had died overnight, 16 hours after they were first stranded.

The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions said 51 whales had died by Wednesday morning.

“It wasn’t a great night overnight — of the 97 whales that were stranded yesterday afternoon, we had 51 die overnight,” Parks and Wildlife Service officer Peter Hartley said.

“We expect to have over 80 staff from a number of different government departments today, as well as some private sector agriculture support.”

Mr Hartley told Hit WA’s Allan & Carly that he expected much of Wednesday would involve saving as many whales as they could.

Rescuers try to get a whale into deeper water.
Camera IconRescuers try to get a whale into deeper water. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian
A girl looks on.
Camera IconA girl looks on. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian

“The process today is to remove any deceased whales from the site and we will then start planning on getting as many whales back in groups out into deeper water,” he said.

“That would involve walking them out and using vessels basically guide them into deeper water.”

DBCA volunteers have started moving the whales off the beach and into deeper water using tarps and slings.

It is hoped that once past the shallows, the animals will move deeper.

Two volunteers were staying alongside each whale in the hope of making sure it stays out.

Work to remove the dead whales also started, with a tractor being brought in to help.

DBCA’s Dion Utber said a vet was checking on the health of the whales.

He said a small pod of pilot whales was now in deeper water, with about 30 rescuers alongside them.

About 9.20am, a pilot whale tried to move back onto shore, with a group of volunteers deterring it.

Deon Utber.
Camera IconDeon Utber. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian

Mr Utber said it was hoped to bring in vessels, slowly so the whales could get used to the sound, then use them to shepherd the whales out to sea.

A volunteers who had just come out of the water said they were trying to keep the whales upright.

He said some of the whales had started making vocalisations to each other in the water.

DBCA closed the beach overnight, condoning off the area and preventing vehicle access, though it was still possible to walk down to the beach.

One person remained, attending to one of the whales. Not far away, another two people could be seen helping another whale.

A fence has been erected running from the grass area to the beach and into the water, cutting off the public from the whales.

A large pod of whales have beached themselves on Cheynes Beach.
Camera IconA large pod of whales have beached themselves on Cheynes Beach. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian
Ready to help the pod.
Camera IconReady to help the pod. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian

A volunteer centre has been set up nearby.

Whale watcher and documentary maker Chris Meuzelaar was still hopeful of saving some of the stranded pilot whales, despite the grim news.

“It’s nice to see there’s so many still alive at this point,” he said.

“I don’t think the day is going to end well but ... at the moment there’s a little bit of hope around ... so I hope something comes out of it.”

A unusually large pod of pilot whales stranded themselves at Cheynes Beach, east of Albany, on July 25, 2023. Facebook/Cheynes Beach Caravan Park
Camera IconA unusually large pod of pilot whales stranded themselves at Cheynes Beach, east of Albany, on July 25, 2023. Facebook/Cheynes Beach Caravan Park Credit: Laurie Benson/Albany Advertiser
Rescuers get organised.
Camera IconRescuers get organised. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian

Meuzelaar, who is filming the Cheynes Beach stranding as part of a documentary he is making, praised the enthusiastic Albany community.

“They’ve got a lot of general care, general concern, general worry, a little bit of frustration, which is understandable,” he said.

“But they tell me pilot whales, unless you can get them all out in a group, they’ll just rebeach themselves.

Rescuers work to save the whales.
Camera IconRescuers work to save the whales. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian

“I guess there has to be a coordinated effort to get all the pilot whales out ... so that half the pod doesn’t want to come back in.”

The pod of long-finned pilot whales was spotted swimming perilously close to Cheynes Beach, 60km east of Albany, on Tuesday morning.

Trying to coax a whale deeper.
Camera IconTrying to coax a whale deeper. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian
A large pod of whales have beached themselves on Cheynes Beach, near Albany Laurie Benson
Camera IconA large pod of whales have beached themselves on Cheynes Beach, near Albany Laurie Benson Credit: Laurie Benson/Albany Advertiser

They beached themselves later that day.

At 6am on Wednesday, DBCA’s Parks and Wildlife Service urged members of the public to stay away from the stranded whales as they had enough registered volunteers, having been overwhelmed by hundreds of offers to help.

Many Facebook users commenting on the media coverage said they were disappointed they couldn’t get through to the DBCA landline to register as volunteers.

Videowhales cheynes beach

“We understand the public’s concern and appreciate the support from volunteers and organisations,” the Parks and Wildlife Service Facebook post said.

“However, we now have enough registered volunteers and the best way to help is for members of the public to stay away from Cheynes Beach on Wednesday.”

The volunteer centre at the beach.
Camera IconThe volunteer centre at the beach. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian
The beached whales.
Camera IconThe beached whales. Credit: Laurie Benson/The West Australian

Every year, about 2000 whales beach themselves around the world. Toothed whales rather than baleen whales are more likely to be involved in strandings.

While there has been no definitive reason given for whales to beach themselves, climate change and naval sonar have been linked to the event.

Beached whales often die because of dehydration, collapsing under their own weight or drowning when high tide covers the blowhole.

Significant mass strandings off WA

  • 1986: Flinders Bay Augusta — more than a hundred false killer whales.
  • 1996: 320 long-finned whales became beached in WA’s largest stranding.
  • 2009: Hamelin Bay — pilot whales.
  • 2005: Busselton Beach — false killer whales.
  • 2018: Hamelin Bay — about 150 short-finned and long-finned pilot whales. Only four of the whales survived.

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