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Kelly-Ann Irving, NSRI volunteer and deputy station commander at Station 26 (Kommetjie), has trained with the South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN) to rescue whales using specialised techniques and equipment. We chat to her fascinating work...

Can you share the story of your first whale call-out?

It was an exciting one – the crew have talked about it for years and still do. Everyone who knows me knows I need snacks on the boat. I have a snack cupboard at the base and sometimes my close friends on the crew will steal my snacks and look straight at me while eating them, pretending they haven’t done anything – hilarious! So the first thing we did was rush – and I mean rush! – to get snacks because we knew it would be a loooong day.

Then we went off to join the Hout Bay crew off Cape Point to rescue a whale. It was rough seas on the way there. SAWDN team leader Ian Klopper was explaining the circles whales make in the water with their tails, their direction, how to recognise different types of whales… When we got to the whale, I stayed on the boat to watch, while the whale crew went off on another boat to cut the whale free. The animal was clearly in distress.

As a joke, I started speaking ‘whale’ – think Dory in Finding Nemo. My crew all had a giggle but then the whale stopped struggling and they joked that it was because I could speak to it. After the whale had been cut free, it still had rope attached to it. We had to go find it! Everyone pointed in one direction and I pointed in exactly the opposite direction. Ian asked me if I was sure. I was so confident. I yelled across to him “the circles!” He listened to me and we found the whale.

You recently cut a whale free for the first time. What was that like?

My first cutting free was for a juvenile humpback. It was incredible. It was a day or two before lockdown started. The sea was beautiful and this poor, relatively little whale was trapped and in such distress. It was not a happy animal. Some local trawler guys had gone past the whale and given us the coordinates so when we eventually found it, we started the process.

We used our little boat to herd the whale slightly, without freaking it out too much more. Ian and I were on the big boat with our exceptional crew handing us equipment while we worked together to cut the whale free. After we’d freed the whale, I asked Ian to explain why it had been flipping and rolling so much. It was obviously really scared. He told me baby whales can be a lot more difficult than big ones to free and that it had been quite a tough case.

Tell us about your training with SAWDN

I did some in Kommetjie with Ian Klopper and the crew who had previously done the course. This was more about having fun and setting us up to be able to do the course when we were ready. Ian made me knock tree branches with a pool net pole until my arms were so sore I wanted to drop that pole. Ian would just tell me, “Kel, that whale is going to die if you give up.” I would look at him and say, “It's a tree. Calm down.”

He is an exceptional teacher and taught me how to manoeuvre that pole, so when it got to disentanglements, the pole was an extension of my sore and tired arms. And I never give up!I then did a full course in Hout Bay in 2018. It was exceptionally interesting and so much fun. We were a bunch of crew from around the country learning together. Meeting people from other stations is one of my favourite things.

I think I have been involved in six whale disentanglements, one mass stranding, a few single or double live whale strandings, as well as a few dead animals washed up. I've also assisted with seals, dolphins, a stingray, penguins and a Cape clawless otter, to name a few (but who’s counting?!). Kommetjie gets involved in quite a few whale-related calls because there is an active commercial rock lobster industry operating in our area.

What drew you to animal rescue in particular?

I’ve always loved animals. My mom has photos of me feeding ducks, birds, squirrels and a wild rat – because shame, the poor thing was hungry too! You think about animal shelters for cats, dogs, horses, but people cutting whales free? Is that even a thing? Being involved in Sea Rescue showed me that these things exist and allowed me to become involved and do the training (thank you to the donors who donated so that I could do courses!).Now, you cannot keep me away! As long as we all remember our snacks because these calls can take hours and being hungry makes everyone grumpy and tired.

What should you do if you come across a whale in distress?

Stay with the whale! That way we can find it and cut it free. Sometimes we spend hours looking for whales and we can't always find them. I understand that this can be quite difficult, though, because fisherman need to get to the fishing grounds by a certain time to be able to fish, and some will not have enough fuel on board to hang around and wait.Call the NSRI immediately. The NSRI will contact SAWDN to team up and free the whale. Know that there is a team ready to go (and really excited to be able to help). It's so rewarding cutting a whale free and watching it swim away. It gives life meaning!

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