A 10-metre-long humpback whale entangled in fishing gear in British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia has been rescued with the help of a team of experts, a drone, a satellite tag, concerned citizens and an acrobatic twist from the captive itself.
The impressive manoeuvring was all accomplished with an even more impressive audience looking on. The trapped animal had a group of companion whales swimming by its side the entire time.
Paul Cottrell, the Pacific marine mammal rescue lead for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said calls about a whale caught in fishing line pulling a yellow buoy began coming in last Thursday.
Though rescuers spent the whole day looking, it wasn’t until the next morning, when a whale-watching crew spotted and tracked the animal off the Gulf Island of Texada, that officials were able to come and place a satellite tag on the trailing gear.
“So that was huge. Then we could relax a little bit because we would be able to find the animal by the satellite tag,” Cottrell said.
With the tag 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 tied up by the rope.
“We could get a really good bird’s-eye view. We knew exactly how the gear was through the 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 protruding … trailing much behind the animal, much behind the buoy. “
Cottrell said they learned they were dealing with about 90 metres of polysteel rope, along with the buoy and prawn fishing gear. The strong, abrasive rope was caught in the whale’s mouth and had already begun wearing away flesh.
“That rope in the mouth would prevent the animal from successfully foraging so it was being impacted that way,” Cottrell said. “The rope can continue to wear into the flesh and sometimes be ingested. So it can be definitely a lethal situation.”
The rescuers also had to deal with three other humpback whales swimming by the trapped animal’s side.
Despite also the commotion, two of the whales remained next to the trapped animal, and the rescue boats, the entire time, Cottrell said.
“It complicated things significantly because not only were we worried about the animals getting entangled in that trailing gear from being so close to the whale, also how they would react once we started working … to remove the gear.”
He said encounters with companion animals, particularly a group of this size, are rare. In his more than 50 rescues, it was the first time he’d seen a group this large.
“They do travel together and often you’ll get the same animals travelling together. Why they chose to continue with this animal when it was under duress and entangled? We don’t know,” he said.
A rescue plan was hatched and the team began slowly cutting line away from one side of the whale’s mouth hoping that with one side clear the remaining rope would more easily slide out.
With the drone operator monitoring the whales so the boat drivers could react to any change in behaviour, the team spent four hours clearing half the entanglement before putting a small amount of tension 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 popped all the line out,” 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 the span of two days including from citizens, a ferry boat captain and the whale-watching crew.
In the end, rescuers were able to use the drone to follow the liberated whale - and its companions - as they swam away together.
—Ashley Joannou, The Canadian Press