Mass whale stranding at Hamelin Bay near Augusta bonds rescue volunteers
They were perfect strangers, but many among the group of beachgoers had formed strong bonds before the day was out.
The task at hand? Trying to save a handful of survivors among a pod of stranded whales.
About 150 pilot whales beached themselves yesterday morning at Hamelin Bay near Augusta, about 310 kilometres south of Perth, leaving horrified swimmers and fishermen looking on.
Most of the pilot whales did not survive after the mass stranding near Augusta. (ABC News: James Carmody)
The giant animals, some weighing more than a tonne, started to die as they were dashed against rocks, with people fighting desperately to stop them washing onto the sand.
Determined teams of volunteers — regular beach users including swimmers, fishermen and even young children — propped up the bodies of the whales to stop them toppling over into the sand and damaging their fragile fins.
Many people were there for hours, battling aching arms, sunburn and exhaustion to try to keep the mammals alive.
The whales’ bodies were covered by towels as volunteers patiently poured bucket after bucket of water on top of them.
Lucy Evans, 6 and her sister Sana, 11, helped care for one of the whales on the beach. (ABC News: James Carmody)
‘Everyone has chipped in and helped out’
Karen Goodwin was camping at a nearby holiday park when news spread that the animals were in distress.
Volunteer Karen Goodwin (left) helped a female whale before it was returned to the sea. (ABC News: Rebecca Trigger)
“I realised there were still whales left alive, so I just chucked on a wetsuit and started helping,” she said.
Ms Goodwin found herself helping one particular female whale throughout the day.
“[I was] keeping her stable, keeping her cool, pushing sand up her body to try and stabilise her,” she said.
“It’s been good, everyone has been great, everything provided, water, food, buckets, towels. Everyone has just chipped in and really helped out.”
While almost all of the pod died, six whales — including the one Ms Goodwin helped — were able to be moved by heavy machinery to another part of the beach, where they were then guided back into the ocean by swimmers.
The operation to return the six surviving whales to the water was a delicate one. (ABC News: Rebecca Trigger)
It’s worth it if it saves one whale: volunteer
Cowaramup local Shannon Stent said he was working among a small group of volunteers trying to help another whale.
Shannon Stent (right) says he and his fellow volunteers bonded with the whale they helped. (ABC News: Rebecca Trigger)
“We have all got new friends and it’s been good sticking it out with this guy,” he said.
“There’s not much to do when you’re sitting here keeping a stranded whale comfortable and wet, so we are talking a lot and we have bonded with this guy.”
Mr Stent said the work he had done throughout the day was tiring, but worth it if it helped one whale survive.
“It’s pretty tiring, burning legs and stuff like that, a bit of sunburn. But it’s all worth it I reckon.
“If we help save one or two of these, it will be amazing.”
Volunteers worked on the surviving whales for hours, trying to keep them cool. (ABC News: James Carmody)
A day of contrasting emotions
There was little sound coming from the exhausted whales on the beach yesterday, but their blowholes would intermittently open and close as they took gulps of air.
Some of the mammals had gashes in their deep black skin from the unforgiving rocks after thrashing against them as they swam closer to shore.
While most of the pod died, the crowd of volunteers cheered, whooped and hugged as the surviving six made it back out into the water.
State Emergency Service coordinator Lewis Hawkins said he was not surprised to see so many members of the public pitch in to help.
SES coordinator Lewis Hawkins says whale rescues always attract volunteers. (ABC News: James Carmody)
“It wasn’t the first time we have had beaching of whales here, and it’s always the same,” he said.
“There’s always a lot of people who turn up to help out where they can.”
But there is still much to do. This morning, authorities face the difficult task of removing the carcasses of the dead whales from the beach — an operation that is expected to take days.
The carcasses will be transported to an inland landfill site on trucks.
The public has been urged to keep clear of the beach as authorities continue the clean-up.
In the meantime, fingers will remain crossed for the six rescued whales in the hope they stay out at sea.
The carcasses of more than 140 dead pilot whales need to be removed from the beach. (ABC News: James Carmody)