IT was a devastating scene as the carcasses of hundreds of whales were spotted on remote sands in Chile four years ago.

But scientists, who investigated the incident in Patagonia from planes and boats, making it to the remote location long after the initial incident, determined it was the largest ever recorded mass stranding.

Now a pioneering technique to count great whales from space has found that the scale of this event was likely far greater.

In-depth analysis of high-resolution satellite images of the area taken around the time of the stranding has identified many more stranded whales.

And although the experts say it is difficult to proffer an exact number of creatures involved - most of them sei whales - images suggest the toll was nearly double.

The new study, published in the journal PLoS ONE by scientists from British Antarctic Survey and four Chilean research institutes, reveals that the new technique promises to revolutionise how stranded whales, that are dead in the water or beached, are detected in remote places, allowing better understanding of strandings and potentially allowing for intervention.

It also comes at a time when figures show the number of whales and dolphins beaching around the UK coastline is rising.

Data from a report by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) for 2017 shows that 1,000 were stranded, which was more than in any year since records began.

Meanwhile, 4,896 whales, porpoises and dolphins died on UK beaches between 2011 and 2017 - up 15% on the previous seven years, with the causes including plastic, fishing and diseases.

Author and whale biologist Dr Jennifer Jackson from the British Antarctic Survey said: "The causes of marine mammal strandings are poorly understood.

"Therefore information gathered helps understand how these events may be influenced by overall health, diet, environmental pollution, regional oceanography, social structures and climate change.

"As this new technology develops, we hope it will become a useful tool for obtaining real-time information.

"This will allow local authorities to intervene earlier and possibly help with conservation efforts."

It has long been known that the rate of climate change is so fast, some whale and dolphin populations may not have time to adapt.

The WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) body say that changes in sea temperature, freshening of seawater, acidification, rises in sea levels, the loss of icy polar habitats and the decline of food sources are just some of the many dangers which climate change poses for whales and dolphins.

A spokesman said: "Climate change is a fundamental threat to whales, dolphins and porpoises.

"Unless radical actions are taken, some whale and dolphin populations may not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive. For example, the northern Indian Ocean is fringed by land, limiting the ability of species to move northwards into cooler habitat as waters become warmer."

One theory over the cause of mass strandings is warmer water temperatures which can affect the movement of prey, leading whales into unsuitable areas, although research continues into possible reasons and any part played by humans.

But the new use of satellite imagery allows experts to cover thousands of kilometres of coastline and view remote areas at speed, rather than having to travel to the hard-to-reach areas, such as Puponga, the most distant settlement on the Golden Bay side of Farewell Spit in New Zealand. In 2017, more than 200 whales were stranded.

Lead author Dr Peter Fretwell, also from the British Antarctic Survey, added:

"This is an exciting development in monitoring whales from space. Now we have a higher resolution 'window' on our planet, satellite imagery may be a fast and cost-effective alternative to aerial surveys, allowing us to assess the extent of mass whale stranding events, especially in remote and inaccessible areas."

Andrew Baillie, the Cetacean Strandings Officer at London's Natural History Museum, told the BBC that the satellite technology is "important ecologically", adding that whales are crucial to the marine ecosystem.

He said: "If they are suffering because of any actions of humans then we need to monitor that and mitigate it if possible."

Anyone who finds a stranded marine animal in Scotland is advised by the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme to contact the SSPCA.