Just two of a group of 45 sperm whales stranded in Australia remain alive, officials said Saturday, and rescuers were trying to comfort them as they wallowed in shallow waters among the bodies of their pod.
The survivors among the group dwindled from seven to two overnight Friday despite the efforts of a team of wildlife officers who rushed to the sandbar on the remote northwest coast of Tasmania state to help.
High tide on Saturday had made it easier to care for the two, but rescuers were still working out the best way to try to navigate the whales through numerous sandbars in the area.
"It's bad because there are so many animals dead but good because there are two alive who are floating at high tide," said David Penberton, a marine biologist with Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.
"They are just bobbing in the water amongst the dead whales."
It could be 24 hours before rescuers attempt to move the whales out to sea, he said.
The whales — some up to 60 feet long — beached on Thursday on a sandbar about 160 yards off Perkins Island near the mouth of a river. All but seven had died by the time they were spotted.
Penberton said the carcasses would be left in place to rot or be eaten by scavengers.
Strandings happen periodically in Tasmania, which whales pass on their migration to and from Antarctic waters.
Scientists don't know why the creatures get stranded, but they suspect 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.
"Animals that are bound together very tightly by social bonds like this predominantly female group of sperm whales and their young, tend to move as one organism virtually," said Nick Gale, a marine mammal expert from the Australian Antarctic Division.
"If navigation is confused, on occasion a mistake will be made where they end up on shore. I think this is just what happened on this occasion," he said.
He said there was little hope for those whales still alive.
"Refloating sperm whales is almost impossible," he said. "They are so large and so difficult to refloat that actually returning sperm whales is quite a rare event."
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 spend most of their time in deep waters that are generally away from coastlines and therefore become stranded less often than other species. But in some years ocean currents and feed stocks bring them closer to shore, scientists say.