LISTEN

Listen to Episode Ten of the Voice of Real Australia podcast: The pilot whale stranding in Strahan, Tasmania, was the largest ever recorded in Australia

The Strahan whale stranding was the largest in Australian recorded history. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding
The Strahan whale stranding was the largest in Australian recorded history. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding

Strahan, pronounced Strawn,is a small fishing village on the west coast of Tasmania. It has a permanent population of about 650 people. The former port town sits on Macquarie Harbour, which is six times the size of Sydney Harbour.

It's a base camp for west coast wilderness tourism and boasts a rich convict history. Upriver is Sarah Island, a colonial penal settlement older than Port Arthur. Strahan is also an access point for the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park part of Tasmania's World Heritage area.

On September 21 2020, the town was rocked by Australia's largest mass whale stranding. An estimated 470 pilot whales beached on sand banks in the harbour, and across Betsie Bay and Ocean Beach.

Strahan actor and director Kiah Davey has been living in Strahan for 27 years.

"I think the community was in shock when we first found out, and a little bit of disbelief, that it was so many whales that had been stranded," she said.

Kiah stars in and runs the play The Ship That Never Was. It's the longest running play in the country. The play tells the true story of a group of convicts from Sarah Island who stole a boat and successfully sailed to Chile.

"Stahan was established in the 1880s and some families have been around since the 1880s. But then you also have blow-ins like myself who come from elsewhere, and have fallen in love with the place," Kiah said.

Laura Stewart teaches years two and three at Strahan Primary School.

"In the school itself, we've got about 54 students. So it's quite a small little community, but definitely a community in the sense of the word," said Laura.

Strahan has a permanent population of about 650 people. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding

Strahan has a permanent population of about 650 people. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding

Laura said her students were heartbroken about the whales but the stranding helped start important conversations about life and death and also about community.

"It was a big discussion about community and how community bands together. We had all the fish farms helping out. And a lot of my students' parents were involved," she said.

Surf Life Saver Luke Emmett and his two teenage sons travelled three hours from their home in Devonport to help with the whale rescue.

When I first got there I didn't realise it was all the whales out there. It kind of looks like a heap of dead trees in the forest

Luke Emmett

Luke originally went to Strahan to help with water safety but ended up helping with the whales.

"It took us 12 people to get each little calf up onto the boat. And you could feel that the whales were talking to each other. It was sad and rewarding all at the same time," he said.

The rescue operation went for over a week and 111 whales were saved.

Macquarie Harbour is notorious for its shallow waters. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding

Macquarie Harbour is notorious for its shallow waters. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding

The beached pods were mainly females and juveniles. This is normal for the species as the adult males tend to go off and form new pods. However, zoologist Belinda Bauer was surprised to find more lactating mothers than juveniles among the group.

"It might have been that some of the animals that we were recording that were slightly bigger and were still feeding on their mothers. And it's known with animals like pilot whales the babies will actually feed on several mothers, so they might feed on their aunty as well," Belinda said.

MORE VORA podcasts:

Belinda and her team were tasked with collecting samples and data on the whales for the Tasmanian Museum.

"Whales inhabit the open ocean and they have massive distributions, so they're really difficult to study in the wild. Much of what we know about pilot whales comes from what we can gather at stranding events," she said.

The fish farms that operate in the harbour provided their specialty jet boats to the rescue effort. The mouth of Macquarie harbour is known as Hell's Gate because it's a notoriously shallow and dangerous channel. They even provided a barge which could carry about 20 whales, each weighing up to a couple of tonnes.

Restaurants and cafes in Strahan provided meals for volunteers and rescuers. The local volunteer ambulance parked at the harbour over the course of the operation to ensure rescuers were safe and didn't get hypothermia.

Local people were trying to help in any way that they possibly could

Kiah Davey

The rescue and recovery effort was managed by the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment or DPIPWE (pronounced duh-pip-wee). The department worked together with Surf Life Saving, trained experts and fish farm volunteers. The CSIRO even helped out with weather information, and ocean current data. The Environment Protection Authority helped with disposal of the carcasses.

"That first day there were only about 20 to 30 people involved. After the first day and second day, we had close to 80 people and then we had 80 to 100 people every day for about 10 days after that," said Eddie Staier, planning officer on the incident management team for Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service.

Volunteers and workers came from around the state to help in the rescue effort. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding

Volunteers and workers came from around the state to help in the rescue effort. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding

Eddie said a lot was learnt from the whale stranding and the department can now be better prepared next time. He said past procedures didn't anticipate such a large stranding.

We're used to dealing with strandings of 30 or 40 animals at a time. So to all of a sudden have a stranding 10 times that size sort of throws a curveball

Eddie Staier

Dr Annie Philips is a wildlife vet for DPIPWE. She checked the health of the whales before they were released. She said the experience was an "emotional rollercoaster".

"It was really hard work. It was exhausting. You're in cold water for hours and hours and hours on end. It's incredibly hard, obviously, dragging an animal that weighs a couple of tons over a sandbar and being very careful," she said.

But despite the cold and the loss Annie said the vibe among the rescuers was positive as they did save many whales.

Over the past 200 years there's been 700 single and mass strandings of whales in Tasmania. The last mass stranding was in 1935 when 294 pilot whales beached at Stanley on the north west coast.

Over 10 days 11 whales were saved. Hundreds perished. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding

Over 10 days 11 whales were saved. Hundreds perished. PHOTO: Brodie Weeding

Macquarie Harbour is a hotspot for whale strandings. Although the size of this one was unusual. It's believed the shallow harbour confuses the whales' echolocation. Sand is a porous surface and their clicks and chirps don't rebound off it, "blinding" them. The coast line is also known for rough seas. It's not known exactly why whales beach themselves but it's recognised as a normal part of their mortality.

Pilot whales commonly strand in numbers due to living in social groups. If one or a few get beached others will come to their rescue and get stuck themselves.

It wasn't the first stranding Kiah had seen in Strahan and it probably won't be the last.

"One of my very first visits to Strahan when I was 12 years old I remember going for a very long walk down the beach with my parents and my sister going to have a look at the whale carcasses," said Kiah.

Now the carcasses have gone, buried or taken out to sea. There's nothing to suggest the stranding ever happened except for some well fed Tassie devils with extra shiny coats.

"It really showed what a great community Strahan is and how they can really come together and help out in times of need. And not just Strahan, we had people from all over the state coming in and helping," said Laura.

Listen to the full story on the podcast. Search Voice of Real Australia in Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

This story Looking at the impact of Australia's largest whale stranding first appeared on Newcastle Herald.