Image: Stranded whales
A photo from Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service shows sperm whale tranded on a sand bar off Perkins Island in Australia's Tasmania state on Friday.
updated 1/25/2009 6:02:18 AM ET 2009-01-25T11:02:18

The last survivor among a group of 45 sperm whales that became stranded on a remote Australian sandbar died Sunday, ending a long and disappointing rescue effort.

The whales became stuck on a sandbar just off the island state of Tasmania's northwest coast on Thursday. Officials who rushed to the site to help survivors found only seven alive, and began pouring water over the semi-submerged mammals to keep them cool as they tried to devise a plan to free them.

But survivor numbers dwindled each day. The last one, which had hung on for more than three days but was hemmed in behind the bodies of others in the pod, died Sunday afternoon.

"We were aiming for a rescue but the longer the rescue took the more remote (the chances of a rescue) became, and the whale died," said Warwick Brennan, a spokesman for the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries.

Earlier Sunday, rescuers gave up hope of saving the last survivor.

"We are administering palliative care," said Chris Arthur, a spokesman for Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service.

Too heavy to lift
The animals — the largest up to 60 feet long and weighing up to 22 U.S. tons each — were too heavy to lift free of the sandbar, Arthur said.

Ironically, the thick blubber that insulates the animals when they swim in deep Antarctic waters has posed one of the greatest dangers.

"The blubber, which is a real asset to them in the deep cold waters, just really makes them heat up quickly," Brennan told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio earlier Sunday.

Strandings happen periodically in Tasmania, where whales pass during their migration to and from Antarctic waters.

Scientists do not know why the creatures get stranded, but they suspect in this case that rough conditions in the narrow channel between the island and the mainland had churned up sediment in the water and confused the pod's sonar navigation.

Last November, 150 long-finned pilot whales died after beaching on a rocky coastline in Tasmania despite frantic efforts to save them. A week earlier, rescuers saved 11 pilot whales among a pod of 60 that had beached on the island state.

Sperm whales become stranded less often than other species because they spend most of their time in deep waters, away from the coastline. But scientists say ocean currents and feed stocks have brought them closer to shore.

Officials have said the carcasses would be left in place to rot or be eaten by scavengers.

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