In September 1994, a charter boat operator from Ladysmith, BC (just south of Nanaimo) dove in the chilly waters of Johnstone Strait. Armed only with a kitchen knife, Michael Durban, an experienced diver, cut free the inch-thick rope that encircled a humpback whale so tightly that it could not move its large pectoral flippers. As the rope fell away, the humpback immediately spread its pectoral fins, and did a long deep dive, which it hadn’t been seen to do since it had first been spotted. A short time later, the whale swam towards Durban, who was still in the water, executed a 90-degree roll directly in front of him and continued on its way.
Entanglements are less common on the West coast than the East coast of North America. Since 1983, there have been 49 reported entanglements in BC waters, including eight humpbacks (three in 2002 alone), nine Dall’s porpoise, eight harbour porpoise, seven grey whales, four Pacific white-sided dolphins, two pilot whales and one Northern right-whale dolphin. This represents an average of 2.4 entanglements per year with a maximum of eight – occurring in 1990. However, on the East Coast entanglements and systematic rescues are a regular occurrence.
In 1978, Dr. Jon Lien, a scientist at Memorial University in Newfoundland was studying a species of seabird and teaching animal behaviour, when he received a call from an inshore fisherman reporting a humpback whale that had become entangled three months previously and was still trailing fishing gear and unable to feed. Dr. Lien was able to free the whale, and news of the success spread quickly among fishermen. He subsequently established the Entrapment Assistance Programme responding to entanglements along 17,000 km of coastline. During the peak of the cod fishery the program responded to an average of 150 entangled humpbacks a year, and released ten other species of cetaceans from fishing gear. The success of the project is due in large measure to the nature of the relationship the project has developed with fishermen, and has not only saved whales, but has also limited the destruction to nets.
Further south on the east coast, a large network of organizations has been established to disentangle whales. In the Bay of Fundy, the Whale Disentanglement Network was established to disentangle endangered North Atlantic right whales but also responds to humpback and other entangled species. The network is a co-operative program with a number of groups including the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, New Brunswick Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, East Coast Ecosystems, New England Aquarium, Center for Coastal Studies, local whale watch companies, interested residents and the Grand Manan Whale & Seabird Research Station. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada Habitat Stewardship Program provided funds for equipment purchased to establish a full cache of disentanglement equipment located at Westport, Brier Island, Nova Scotia, with additional first responder kits on Grand Manan and Campobello Island – two islands near the entrance to the Bay of Fundy on the Canada/US border. Further south in U.S. waters, the Centre for Coastal Studies at Provincetown Massachusetts works cooperatively with the US Coast Guard, NMFS, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and others to locate and disentangle whales that have been caught in fishing gear. In particular, the Centre for Coastal Studies has become a world leader in whale disentanglement, developing specialized equipment and techniques to ensure disentanglements are as safe as possible for both whales and humans.
While Michael Durban’s 1994 disentanglement of the humpback in Johnstone Strait was an outstanding act and likely saved the whale’s life, his course of action is inadvisable for the public. It is very easy for a human to become entangled in the gear trailing an entangled animal, potentially disasterous situation if that animal chose to dive. This past summer in New Zealand a man attempting to disentangle a humpback from lobster pot ropes was killed after being struck by the whale’s tail. It is unlikely that an entangled whale will recognize a would-be rescuer as help, and it may slap it’s pectoral fins, tail flukes or even attempt to breach.
On the west coast, the best course of action for the public that finds an entangled whale is to contact authorities and to monitor the position and condition of the whale so that the experts will be able to locate the distressed animal. A west coast network of organizations capable of responding safely to entanglements is developing – and the correct training has been provided to marine mammal personnel in the province. The Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre is also able to assist with cetacean strandings, whether or not they result from entanglements.
In BC, to report any marine mammal or sea turtle incident, including entanglements to the 24-hour Marine Mammal Incident Line at 1-800-465-4336 as soon as possible.