A 10-meter-long humpback whale entangled in fishing gear in the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia was rescued thanks to an expert team, a drone, a satellite beacon, concerned citizens and acrobatics from the captive himself.
The impressive maneuvers were all accomplished with an even more impressive audience. The trapped animal had a pod of pet whales swimming alongside it the entire time.
Paul Cottrell, Pacific Marine Mammal Rescue Manager for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said calls about a whale caught in a fishing line pulling a yellow buoy started coming in last Thursday.
Although rescuers spent all day searching, it wasn’t until the next morning, when a whale-watching team spotted and tracked the animal off the Gulf Island of Texada, that officials were able to place a satellite beacon on the towed gear. .
“So that was huge. Then we could relax a bit because we would be able to find the animal through the satellite tag,” Cottrell said.
With the beacon as a guide, the team was able to converge on the animal and release a drone to get a closer look at exactly how it was tethered by the rope.
“We could have a very good bird’s eye view. We knew exactly how the equipment was by mouth,” he said.
“There was a buoy on the left side, or the port side of the animal, through the mouth and then on the right side there was a line sticking out… dragging a lot behind the animal, a lot behind the buoy. “
Cottrell said they learned they were dealing with about 90 yards of polysteel rope, as well as the buoy and shrimp fishing gear. The strong, abrasive rope was caught in the whale’s mouth and had already begun to wear away the flesh.
“That rope in the mouth would prevent the animal from feeding successfully, so it was impacted that way,” Cottrell said. “The rope can continue to wear away in the flesh and sometimes be ingested. So it can definitely be a deadly situation.
Rescuers also had to contend with three other humpback whales swimming alongside the trapped animal.
Also despite the commotion, two of the whales stayed close to the trapped animal and rescue boats the entire time, Cottrell said.
“It complicated things considerably because not only were we worried about the animals getting tangled up in this trailing gear because they were so close to the whale, but also how they would react once we started working. . to remove the device.”
He said encounters with pets, especially a group of this size, are rare. In his more than 50 rescues, this was the first time he had seen such a large group.
“They travel together and often the same animals travel together. Why did they choose to continue with this animal when it was under duress and entangled? We don’t know,” he said.
A rescue plan was drawn up and the team began to slowly cut the line from one side of the whale’s mouth, hoping that with one side clear the remaining rope would slide off more easily.
As the drone operator monitored the whales so boat operators could react to any changes in behavior, the team spent four hours clearing half the entanglement before putting some strain on the other side.
That’s when the whale took over.
“The animal reacted to that tension and did a spyhop up and a backflip…it actually just jumped the whole line,” Cottrell said.
“So the plan worked perfectly.”
Cottrell said the rescue would not have been possible without the seven calls about the whale that came in over two days, including from citizens, a ferry captain and the crew of whale watching.
In the end, rescuers were able to use the drone to track the freed whale – and its companions – as they swam together.
—Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press