Four whales euthanised as rescuers try to save 20 more
TWENTY whales are still clinging to life with hopes there could still be more found alive as rescuers continue a painstaking recovery mission
Thursday was thought to be the last chance to save 20 known surviving pilot whales stranded at Strahan's Macquarie Heads and Ocean Beach that morning.
But as crews worked and waded through the frigid water, more previously thought dead were discovered with enough life for return to sea.
After 18 were saved by Thursday afternoon - taking the rescue tally to 88 - hope remained for a further 20 animals.
The mass stranding of about 470 whales was first discovered by a camper on Monday morning and is believed to be the largest in Australian history.
Four suffering whales were euthanised on Thursday after attempts to save them were fruitless.
Parks and Wildlife regional manager Nic Deka said good progress was being made and the rescue tally was expected to grow by the end of Thursday to see death doll decline from about 380.
"There is a likelihood that we'll be continuing the rescue effort [today], he said.
"We are finding a few more animals that are potentially viable.
"Our focus has been on those that appear the most viable and have the most chance of success, but as we've moved across the sandbar we have found a few more that will focus our efforts on."
Mr Deka said the figures being used have been "best estimates".
"With the currents in the Harbour, these whales are moving about a bit, so it has been difficult to get a really accurate number."
Focus is shifting towards the retrieval and disposal of the hundreds of carcasses in the Harbour and containing groups of dead whales using pens to prevent them drifting.
"We've got an aerial reconnaissance up at the present time and that's doing a check of where whales may have drifted to."
Marine and Conservation wildlife biologist Dr Kris Carlyon said the rescue of about 90 whales was an "absolutely fantastic result".
He said the animals returned to sea will "face some challenges" but would hopefully "regain their normal behaviour".
A plan is still being developed for the disposal of carcasses in the Harbour in collaboration with the local fish farming companies.
One of the options being considered is taking the carcasses out to sea on a barge on its way from Devonport to release them in an area where currents won't bring them back to shore, and if they do re-beach they do say in a place where they won't cause any problems.
The process is expected to begin in Friday and could take several days.
General manager of Gordon River Cruises Geoff Ayers said the scenes in the Harbour were "distressing" and it would be a "mammoth task" to remove all of the carcasses.
The tourist cruise ceased for two days after the stranding was reported and has since avoided its usual route through Kelly Channel at the entrance to the Harbour to avoid risking injury to whales or impacting rescue operations.
Mr Ayers said on two occasions the boat has gone out, there were "lots of dead whales floating".
Originally published as Four whales euthanised as rescuers try to save 20 more