Posted by: The ocean update | August 23, 2011

Humpback tangled in fishing gear freed after seven-hour chase (British Colombia, Canada)

Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011 (WENDY STUECK). The chase went on for hours, with the hunters closing in on a humpback whale that grew more exhausted as it struggled to dodge its would-be captors.

Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011 (WENDY STUECK). The chase went on for hours, with the hunters closing in on a humpback whale that grew more exhausted as it struggled to dodge its would-be captors.

In the end, the whale escaped. But instead of cursing, those who’d spent hours stalking it swapped high-fives – relieved at having disentangled fishing gear that was obstructing the whale’s blowhole and, if not removed, would have meant its death by slow starvation.

“There were several layers of mesh and cork right at the blowhole,” Paul Cottrell, a marine mammal specialist with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans who helped free the whale, said on Tuesday. “The way this one was entangled, it was right around the mouth – there’s no way this animal would have been able to feed. If this gear didn’t come off, the animal would have become very tired and it would have starved.”

The rescue – carried out Friday in the waters around Gil Island, off the northwestern coast of B.C. and near the fishing village of Hartley Bay – was the second such incident in a month in B.C., where giant humpbacks can find themselves snagged by nets set for much smaller prey.

And it was the third in the past few years for Mr. Cottrell, who’s developed rare expertise in the art of whale wrangling, which involves familiarity with boats, nets and above all, whale behaviour.

The distressed whale was spotted Thursday by researchers at Cetacealab, which is located on the tip of Gil Island and has been monitoring humpback whales in the area for several years.

Determining that the whale was in bad shape, Cetacealab contacted DFO, which put in an urgent call to Mr. Cottrell. With the clock ticking on the whale’s survival, King Pacific Lodge, a high-end resort in the area, made room for Mr. Cottrell – and his weighty bag of gear – on a Friday morning charter, waiving its fee.

Mr. Cottrell, met at the dock by fisheries officers from Terrace, jumped in a boat and immediately began to search for the slow-moving, hog-tied humpback. Cetacealab researchers and Hartley Bay residents helped in the search.

At this time of year, humpbacks are plentiful in the area and Mr. Cottrell and his team came across more than a dozen before they spotted the one they were looking for.

After locating the whale, the team had to attach their boat to the line trailing from the humpback and then painstakingly winch themselves closer to the animal, trying to get close enough to slice through the fishing gear that was wrapped tightly around its head while at the same time trying to tire the animal out.

At all times, they were prepared to drop gear and change direction if the whale moved in a way that could swamp the boat.

The process took about seven hours and it was close to nightfall when the team got close enough to the whale to slice through the gear in a way that allowed the material to peel back from the whale.

Had the rescue not been accomplished before then, the crew would have attached a satellite tag to track the whale and resumed work in the morning – but that would have involved more risk and fatigue for the whale.

Yet another humpback, nicknamed Canuck, was spotted in June trailing some fishing gear and has been seen several times since, most recently about a week ago. There are concerns that the whale’s health could be deteriorating.

Mr. Cottrell is hopeful that it will be spotted in a place where a rescue team might be able to free it of its baggage.

Fisheries staff, ferry captains and whale-watch operators – as well as sightseers and recreational boaters – are all looking out for the whale.

“We have lots of eyes out there,” he said.

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