Samples taken from stranded Tas whales

Samples from the stranded whales in Tasmania will likely be sent to laboratories around the world.
Samples from the stranded whales in Tasmania will likely be sent to laboratories around the world.

It is hoped samples taken from pilot whales involved in Australia's largest mass stranding can be used to shed light on why beachings occur.

Rescuers have saved 111 whales from a group of about 470 that became stranded on Tasmania's remote west coast last week.

More than 250 dead whales have been documented by scientists at the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery.

They found the majority were female, while there were 88 males and 40 juveniles, proportions in line with the usual make-up of a pod.

"While this is undoubtedly a tragic incident, our best hope is that the data and samples we collect will help provide insights into these incidents," zoologist Belinda Bauer said.

Several skulls will be examined to see if any whales suffered acoustic trauma, potentially from sonar or noise pollution.

Samples will likely be sent to laboratories around the world and also kept frozen in Tasmania to be drawn upon by future scientists.

"Holding physical evidence of the event in long-term storage means we can revisit and answer questions about whale strandings with technologies that may not even exist yet," Ms Bauer said.

The samples will also help determine how the whales are related to each other and add to knowledge about the species' biology and behaviour.

Although hopeful, Ms Bauer said a definitive reason for the beaching will probably never be found.

Macquarie Harbour is a noted pilot whale stranding hotspot, due to its shallow waters and complex geography which can disrupt the species' echolocation.

The pod may have been drawn into the coast hunting food or by the misadventure of a few individuals.

Ms Bauer said freed calves had a good chance of survival, even if their mother had perished, as they usually feed from more than one female.

"They'll either find another lactating mother to feed off, or they'll be old enough to forage for themselves," Ms Bauer said.

"So that's pretty good odds."

The stranding surpasses a 1996 beaching of about 320 pilot whales in Western Australia.

Crews are aiming to finish removing 360 carcasses from the harbour before Wednesday when bad weather sets in.

Australian Associated Press