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Sri Lanka rescues 120 whales after mass stranding

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka saved 120 pilot whales in possibly one of the world’s most successful rescue operations after the country’s biggest mass stranding of the mammals, officials said Tuesday.

Some 65 sailors from the navy and the coastguard along with local volunteers moved short-finned whales by dawn Tuesday after a gruelling overnight rescue, navy spokesman Indika de Silva said.

Sri Lanka navy’s Rapid Response Rescue and Relief Unit (4RU) was deployed for the operation.

“We used the 4RU and several other units in the area for this rescue operation,” de Silva said. “We also brought in our inshore patrol craft to pull the whales into deeper waters.”

Despite the swift rescue, three pilot whales and a bottlenose dolphin died of injuries suffered when they crossed a reef and beached at Panadura, near the fisheries harbour.

Navy vessels were pressed in as local volunteers were unable to deal with the huge number of stranded whales.

Local police chief Sanjaya Irasinghe said a few whales washed ashore on Monday afternoon, but the numbers swelled just before dusk.

The area is under an indefinite curfew to prevent a surge in coronavirus infections in the country, but volunteers from the neighbourhood joined the rescue which ended on Wednesday morning.

-Disoriented pilot-

Wildlife department’s director of health, Tharaka Prasad, a top veterinarian said the rescue was one of the most successful he was aware of.

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“I conducted an autopsy on one of the whales to establish if there are any other reasons that caused them to beach like this,” Prasad said. “I am satisfied they were disoriented.”

Pilot whales are called as such because each pod is known to follow a leader who is considered to be their pilot.

Prasad said the four carcasses were found within a coastline of about five kilometres between Panadura and Moratuwa.

Local authorities were braced for mass deaths as seen in Tasmania in September when about 470 pilot whales were stranded and only about 110 of them could be saved after days of rescue efforts.

However, there was s happier ending to the mass stranding at Panadura.

Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) confirmed that Panadura saw the largest single pod of whales stranded in the South Asian country.

-Second stranding-

On June 1, 2017, a school of 20 pilot whales were stranded in Sri Lanka’s northeastern coastal town of Sampur near the Trincomalee harbour, but all the animals were safely sent back.

In Pilot whales — which can grow up to six metres (20 feet) long and weigh a tonne — are highly social. The causes of mass strandings remain unknown despite scientists studying the phenomenon for decades.

A bigger a sperm whale was stranded inside the Trincomalee harbour in April 2011, but two navy boats were able to guide it out into deeper waters where it was reunited with waiting whales.

Trincomalee, 260 kilometres northeast of Colombo, is a natural harbour and is also a popular tourist spot for whale watching.

Trincomalee is also known as the location where both of the world’s two largest mammals — elephants and whales — can be seen.

The waters around Trincomalee, which was used by Allied forces as a staging post during World War II, have a high concentration of blue and sperm whales while the surrounding jungles have herds of wild elephants. (COLOMBO, November 3, 2020)

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