Dozens of volunteers in wet suits and wooly hats braved chilly seas yesterday to push scores of false killer whales that had beached themselves on Australia's western coast back out to sea. One of the dolphin-sized mammals died, while rescuers refloated 74 others.
Two groups of the whales ran aground on separate beaches at Busselton, 230km south of Perth.
Volunteers responding to the Western Australia state government's call for help pushed one group of about 15 whales back into the ocean, and were holding them in shallow waters while the animals regained their strength.
The rest of the whales were herded back into the water a short time later, said Greg Mair, of Western Australia's Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM).
Whales have stranded themselves in the area before, and scientists cannot explain why.
Volunteer Deidre Beckwith said she was shocked at the scene when she arrived at the beach.
The whales "are very heavy, and they keep moving against us. They are confused," Beckwith said. "It was extraordinary to see it, but it is nice to be able to help them. We just hope they survive."
One whale, about 5m long, died before it could be pushed to sea.
Late yesterday, rescuers were waiting nervously to see if a forecast storm hit the coast, with high winds they feared drive the whales back to shore.
"We couldn't really keep them on the beach tonight simply because it is going to get too rough," CALM regional wildlife officer Warwick Roe said.
"We've had to go the option of getting them out tonight, work with the boats and take them as far as we can before it gets too dark," he said."Fingers crossed, they will keep swimming out."
"The people and the whales will be at risk if we need to do another rescue," Tammy Reid, a conservation officer, told Australia's Sky News.