File photo: Members of the emergency services attempt to refloat pilot whales after they beached near Pittenweem off the coast of Fife, Scotland.

London - A major operation was under way on Monday night to remove the bodies of 17 pilot whales which died in a mass stranding off the British coast.

The whales, including three calves, perished despite hours of frantic efforts by rescue workers to keep them alive until they could be released back out to sea.

The stricken animals were hosed down and covered in wet blankets and sheets for several hours to try to cool them down and keep them hydrated until high tide.

By the time it arrived at 4.30pm on Sunday, only ten of the 26 whales – beached at Fife in Scotland for around 12 hours – had survived.

They were re-floated, but one more of the group died on Monday on rocks nearby.

On Monday night the remaining nine were seen off North Queensferry, heading westwards. This is shallow water where they may be gathering strength following their ordeal. But rescuers warned of a great risk to the whales if they remained there at low tide and were hoping they would head north to deeper waters.

An investigation is under way to try to find out what caused them to beach. The bodies, up to 20ft long, were being examined by pathologists.

Pilot whales are social animals and experts say it is possible a whole group may have swum towards the shore to support a sick or injured whale.

The British Divers Marine Life Rescue crew sent experts to the scene after being contacted on Sunday morning. Area co-ordinator Gareth Norman described it as “like an aircraft crash scene”, with dozens of medics, vets, police, coastguards and volunteers trying everything to save the whales.

Unlike most types of whale, where the male leaves the calves and migrates to find food, for pilot whales both mother and father stay in the pod for their whole lives, which can be up to 60 years. - Daily Mail