The rescue and release of marine mammals that are stranded or entangled is a priority for the Marine Conservation Program. The experience and expertise of MCP staff, and access to specialised equipment and resources, much of which the Program has developed and pioneered over the last 30 years, is crucial to responding successfully to marine mammal emergencies and for effective stranding response efforts and welfare of individuals.
Whale and dolphin strandings
Tasmania is the only Australian state where mass strandings of whales and dolphins regularly occur, and the MCP continues to respond to these events, on average, once every two to three weeks. As such, the MCP is in a unique position to refine rescue procedures and work towards an increased understanding of why these events occur. A response may involve rescue of live whales or dolphins at a mass stranding, or it may be to gather as much information as possible from a single dead animal in order to understand the patterns and processes that drive stranding events.
Mass strandings involve the Odontocetes (toothed whales, including dolphins) which typically live in large social groups. Every stranding event is unique, and the ultimate cause of each event varies significantly. Mass strandings in Tasmania have occurred due to a range of reasons, for example: misadventure, illness or injury of one or more members of a group, disorientation caused by complex or shallow waterways or rough seas, or a flight response from a perceived threat. The species most frequently involved in mass strandings in Tasmania are long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.) and common dolphins (Delphinus delphis).
Strandings of single animals typically involve an individual that is already compromised in some way, for example illness, injury, or entanglement in marine debris.
Whales and dolphins are large and powerful and successful rescue of stranded animals requires specialised equipment and techniques. Inappropriate rescue attempts are likely to lead to increased suffering of the animal, or injury to the people involved.
Should you find a stranded whale or dolphin (alive or dead), please call the MCP on the Whale Hotline: 0427 WHALES (0427 942537) for advice and instruction. Time is critical during a rescue attempt, and rapid notification provides the greatest chance of success.
Stranded long-finned pilot whales on King Island, 2009
Marine mammal entanglement
Entanglement with fishing gear and other marine pollution is a globally-significant threatening process for marine mammals. As seal and whale populations recover they increasingly inhabit areas that overlap with commercial and recreational fisheries, inevitably leading to entanglements.
In Tasmania, Australian (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus
) and long-nosed (A. forsteri
) fur seals, which are still recovering from massive population decline in the 1800s at the hands of the sealing industry, are frequently observed entangled in fishing line or netting. Without intervention, these entanglements are invariably fatal and, where possible, the MCP will attempt to disentangle seals that would otherwise die a painful and slow death. Disentanglement of fur seals that may weigh up to 300kg requires specialist expertise, equipment and training.
Entangled fur seal
Whales and dolphins may also become entangled in marine debris and, similar to seals, entangled whales typically face a prolonged death. Fortunately, few whale entanglements have been observed in Tasmanian waters, however these events are predicted to increase as populations recover. The species most at risk are those that travel or breed close to the coast and are more likely to have contact with fisheries that leave gear in the water; in Tasmania this is the southern right (Eubalaena australis
) and humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae
) whale, both listed as Endangered under Tasmanian legislation.
Marine Conservation Program staff undertake regular whale disentanglement training exercises
Although the MCP endeavours to assist entangled animals where possible, minimising the risk is the best way of tackling this issue. The Program actively promotes the importance of keeping track of fishing gear and to ensure the correct setting of pots and mooring lines to reduce the hazard these present to marine mammals.
Whale and seal entanglements present complex and often dangerous situations that require specialist skills and training if the whale is to be released unharmed. Rapid reporting to the
Whale Hotline (0427 WHALES) will ensure the MCP entanglement response team has the best possible chance of successfully disentangling the animal. Where possible, vessel operators should monitor entanglement situations, with due regard for the safety of the vessel and the whale, until specialist teams arrive. Boaters should NOT attempt to cut an entangled whale free, as the attached line provides a safe working line for the disentanglement team and the stressed animal presents a significant safety risk.
Should you find an entangled whale, dolphin or seal (alive or dead), please call the MCP on the Whale Hotline: 0427 WHALES (0427 942537). Do not attempt to disentangle the animal – these are large wild animals and present a significant safety risk if approached too close.