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Scores of dead pilot whales found on Tasmanian beach in ‘confronting scenes’

Thirty-four pilot whales were found washed up across a beach on Tasmania’s east coast on Tuesday in what was described as a “confronting” and “devastating” scene.

While out training on a boat, local guide Chris Theobald came across an “overnight mass stranding” of more than 30 pilot whales at Bryans beach near the southern end of the Freycinet Peninsula.

“Confronting scenes today on our Peninsula,” Theobald wrote in an Instagram post.

While “strong social bonds” can lead a herd of the mammals to follow a “sick or disoriented pod member into trouble”, Theobald believes they “all could have been sick” due to how quickly the group was dying.

Related: They squeaked as they died: I tried to help those baby pilot whales – but nothing could be done

“There was no time to save any,” he said. “Relentless fishing, pollution and now seismic blasting in our oceans could all be contributors.”

The state government’s marine conservation program “spent yesterday collecting important samples and measurements from the whales to see what we can learn about the circumstances and makeup of the pod”, according to a statement on Thursday.

“There were no significant findings or signs of injury” following a veterinarian assessment.

“We don’t know why the whales stranded and it is often not possible to determine,” the statement said.

The location of the pilot whales means there is “no viable option to remove the carcasses from the beach”, the conservation group said, urging members of the public keep their distance.

“The carcasses may also attract sharks so swimmers and other water users are advised to avoid the immediate area.”

A whale carcass was spotted floating in the water on Tuesday, tour operator Rob Pennicott told ABC Radio Hobart.

“My son Noah sent me photos and reported it to Marine [and] Safety Tasmania because the first whale he saw was actually floating and was a hazard to shipping and boats,” Pennicott said.

Noah then saw “over 30 dead whales on the beach”, he said, calling the scene “devastating”.

“To me, it’s very sad. I love dolphins and whales and seals.”

This is not the first time the species has been stranded in Australia.

Just four months ago, at least 50 pilot whales were beached in a mass stranding east of Albany in Western Australia.

Australia’s worst mass stranding of whales was in Tasmania three years ago, when more than 450 long-finned pilot whales became stranded inside Macquarie Harbour.