The NSRI has been involved in whale disentanglement operations since 2006. Since then, around 140 volunteers have been trained in the specific procedures necessary to assist the whales. There are 21 ‘disentanglement stations’ around the country, 18 of which are NSRI stations. Annually volunteer crews respond to around 15 callouts to assist whales in distress.
On 22 May this year, Station 30 (Agulhas) was alerted to a Bryde’s whale entangled in fishing net. The whale was spotted by the crew of the FV Rusvic who, after making the call, opted to stay within sight of the whale, until help arrived. Even though whales may be weighed down by nets and buoys, after being spotted in one place, can swim and dive to another, which can make it difficult for crews to pinpoint their location. Bryde’s whales are particularly elusive and agile, so the call by Rusvic crewman Daniel Le Grange hugely assisted the disentanglement crew.
Station 30 launched the 8,5m Agulhas Rescuer and 4,7m I&J Rescuer 4 and rendezvoused with Rusvic about 3nm out to sea. Crew carefully approached the whale, identifying it as a 9m juvenile Bryde’s whale, trailing fishing lines and buoys. The markings on the buoys had been rubbed off and the rope was covered in algae, indicating that the whale may have been entangled for some time.
They got close enough to attach a kegging line to the entanglement to try to slow the whale down, but as soon as they started making their way up the line, the whale dived.
Working with a moving target
This is not unusual in these kinds of operations. Approaches have to be made carefully, and crew need to be skilled in using the long lines and other picking equipment necessary to cut away at the netting on, for the most part, a ‘moving target’. After the whale dived down, crews had to back off, and wait a while for the whale to get used to their presence. A bit of a cat and mouse followed, but eventually, the young whale resurfaced about 500m from its original location.
Once again, the rescue vessels made cautious attempts to approach it. This time the crew from I&J Rescuer 4 used a much longer working line and by the time they got up close to the whale it was calmly lying below the surface, likely tired from dragging the lines. The crew knew they had to work quickly and efficiently, as there was a good chance the whale could dive again. Getting to within 5m, the whale’s flukes were just ahead of the vessel. They were able to cut the one side of the entangled rope using a special picking knife attached to a long pole. Moving quickly to the other side of the whale, they were able to make a second cut and the entanglement slipped away. Approximately 15m of tangled rope and three buoys were recovered from the water.
Findings are recorded for research purposes
It’s standard procedure to film the disentanglements; these recordings give researchers valuable information regarding the identity of the animal, the damage resulting from the entanglement and the size and species of the whale. The footage is also used for training purposes. In addition, all nets, buoys and ropes are recovered, skin samples are extracted, and DNA information recorded in the research database.
NSRI and SAWDN
The South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN) was established in 2006 in order to manage entangled whales, and is comprised of volunteers from a number of oganisations including the NSRI. Volunteers undergo specialised and rigorous training in the techniques and equipment used, as these disentanglement operations can be risky because cetaceans are so large and powerful. SAWDN chairman Mike Meyer explains a little of the history: ‘During 2006 we heard that several untrained members of the public were attempting to disentangle whales (by diving), and it was clear that a serious accident was likely to occur soon unless something was done. On request of the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), the SA rock lobster industry funded a visit by Bob Bowman, a representative from the Center for Coastal Studies in the US. The DEA then invited all interested SA associations (including the NSRI) to attend a lecture on whale disentanglement at the department’s aquarium in Sea Point. Bob was an experienced member of the Disentanglement Network in Provincetown, US, whose team had developed whale disentanglement protocols. At that meeting various groups and associations agreed to the formation of the SAWDN.”
Since then, on average, SAWDN has responded to around 15 callout involving whales each year. While, these disentanglement operations don’t always have happy endings, and not all whales are saved, he has expressed an interesting phenomenon after certain rescues. Whales may make a pass past the rescue boats, or approach the boats after being freed. It certainly is very rewarding – albeit hard – work for those involved. 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. “There’s nothing quite as rewarding as setting a whale free,” she says.
Meyer suggests calling your nearest NSRI station should you encounter a whale in distress. Your call will be passed on to the right person who will activate the correct response team.
If you see a whale in distress, please call NSRI’s Emergency Operations Centre on 087 094 9774.
View our posters on who to call and what to do if you encounter seabirds, turtles, seals and penguins in distress