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Sperm Whale Pod Dies On Australian Beach

Dec 09, 2014 07:47 PM EST

Eight sperm whales became mysteriously stranded on the South Australian coast over the weekend, resulting in the death of seven of them - nearly the entire pod. It is thought that this may be the first instance of a mass beaching of the species ever seen in this part of the world.

The last of these seven tragic deaths was confirmed by the Australian Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) on Monday, after the six other whales beached themselves and later died over Sunday night. All carcasses were found north of Parara Beach.

It remains unclear how or why exactly these animals became stranded, but Deborah Kelly from South Australia's DEWNR division in Adelaide recently told The Advertiser that there has been speculation that this was a failed rescue attempt for a sick member of the pod, after it called out to its companions from a resting spot in shallow waters.

As tragic as it sounds, that is a common enough scenario for these highly social animals. It is also likely that the pod simply got caught up feeding on fish too close to shore.

"It's one of the sad parts about a mass stranding because we'll probably never know the real reason these beautiful whales ended up on the beach," Kelly said. (Scroll to read on...)

Still, there's some good news with the bad.

DEWNR's Director of Regional Coordination Grant Pelton said an eighth whale was found in distress and close to stranding near Port Vincent (not far from the beaching), and the DEWNR team, trained in marine mammal rescue, was able to save it.

"The animal was very lethargic but after some time they managed to encourage it out into deeper water where it dived and they haven't seen it since," Pelton said in a statement. "They will remain in the area to confirm it doesn't come into the shallows again."

Unfortunately, even with the last of these whales safe, there still remains the issue of the whale corpses.

"The bodies of the whales are likely to leech blood and oil which will attract sharks to the area," Pelton added. "It is not safe for members of the public to wade in the water near the bodies or swim or surf nearby."

That's why Parara Beach was closed as of Monday.

"We also don't know what diseases these animals may be carrying, but we do know some diseases can be transmitted from whales to humans," Kelly added in a statement Tuesday morning. "It is important the public respect the beach closure and the exclusion zone for their own safety."(Scroll to read on...)

However, this hasn't stopped some people from desecrating these animals at their final resting place.

Kelly told local media that she was sent photos showing that some of the whale carcasses' teeth went missing overnight. These teeth are valuable to some collectors, and can be sold for hundreds of dollars apiece.

Since then, the DEWNR issued a public reminder that anyone caught violating the prohibition notice could face heavy fines and even jail time.

Now all that is left to do is determine where to move the carcasses to.

One carcass in particular, the last of the seven sperm whales to die near the Ardrossan jetty, north of Parara Beach, has reportedly "moved into a very inaccessible position on the beach and may not be able to be towed," according to Kelly.

"We will now need to look at all other options in what is a very difficult situation," she said.

This entire event is reminiscent of the death of a pregnant orca whale, nicknamed Rhapsody, which washed ashore in Vancouver just last week. Then, whale teeth were similarly plundered from the corpse in the dead of night, prompting the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans to launched a full investigation. The harvesting and sale of endangered animal parts, they say, will not be tolerated.

You can read more about that incident here.

 For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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