SYDNEY - Rescuers used jet skis, backhoes and human muscle to save dozens of whales and dolphins stranded on a beach in southern Australia on Monday, officials and news reports said.
The 194 pilot whales and half a dozen bottlenose dolphins became stranded on Naracoopa Beach on Tasmania state's King Island on Sunday evening -- the fourth beaching incident in recent months in Tasmania.
Strandings happen periodically in Tasmania as whales pass by during their migration to and from Antarctic waters, but scientists do not know why it happens. It is unusual, however, for whales and dolphins to get stranded together.
Chris Arthur, of Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service, said 54 whales and seven dolphins were still alive when the rescue effort began. By late Monday, 48 animals had been returned to the sea by officials and more than 100 King Island residents who had volunteered to help.
Backhoes dug trenches in the sand that allowed water to get close to the whales, as volunteers doused them with water and draped wet fabric over them to keep them cool.
Groups of volunteers used stretchers to lug dolphins into the shallows, and other officials used small boats and a jet ski to pull whales out to sea.
Rescuers were hopeful they would stay away from the shore.
"It's too early to say yet but it's been a very, very positive day," Shelley Davison, a Parks and Wildlife spokeswoman, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
It was not clear why the animals had beached on the island, halfway between Tasmania and mainland Australia. The Examiner, a Tasmanian newspaper, reported that the animals were caught by a very low tide.
In January, 45 sperm whales died after becoming stranded on a remote Tasmanian sandbar, even though rescuers worked for days to keep them cool and wet as they tried to move them back to the open water.
Last November, 150 long-finned pilot whales died after beaching on a rocky coastline in Tasmania. A week earlier, rescuers saved 11 pilot whales among a pod of 60 that had beached on the island state.