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One of the key pillars of the NSRI is care of the environment, and this includes our ocean’s animal and bird life. Our crews are actively involved in whale disentanglements, but these intricate – and often high-risk – operations require highly skilled crew. We chatted to Herby Meth from NSRI’s Training Department about the training programme.

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, and to date 209 whales have been assisted.

Typically with whale disentanglement callouts, a minimum of two boats are deployed, explains NSRI Training Department’s Herby Meth. ‘One acts as a “staging platform” and carries all the equipment and support crew. The second vessel, usually the smaller one, will act as the “cutting vessel”. (This vessel will approach the animal to do the actual cutting work.) The cutting vessel crew normally consists of a team leader in charge of the disentanglement itself, an experienced helmsman or coxswain, and at least two trained whale disentanglement crew assisting the team leader.’

Theory and practicals

Traditionally, NSRI’s Training Department has held one whale disentanglement training course per year where around 40 candidates attend. But, Herby explains, this approach is changing. ‘We recently held a whale disentanglement workshop over a weekend at Station 10 (Simon’s Town) where we brought together some of the countries most experienced whale disentanglement volunteers to workshop the idea of presenting training in smaller regions, with smaller groups. The idea is that these experienced volunteers would present training on a more regular basis with the support of the NSRI’s Training Department.’ The volunteer trainers have now been equipped with the training material to be able to facilitate these courses.

Skill, stamina and patience

Whale disentanglement operations are by nature tricky and risky – one is dealing with a large and usually distressed animal. These callouts can be long, explains Herby. ‘Spending an entire day or even two on one whale is not uncommon.’ Aside from the skill set involved, volunteers need to have patience and stamina. Also, volunteers need to be aware of the dangerous nature of these operations; they need to understand the risks, know how to reduce the risk, think critically and be able to react quickly and safely, he says.

Training is conducted over a two-day period and involves lectures, practical training on the specialised equipment used and a practical water session that allows the candidates to do practical cutting work on a ‘mock’ whale that is being towed by another vessel. Prior to attending a training weekend, the candidates must complete the theoretical component on e-learning.

Practical proficiency takes time, and all new candidates will work under the guidance of an experienced team leader before being allowed to run an operation as a team leader.

Unfortunately whales get into trouble along the entire coastline of South Africa, but over the years hotspot areas have been identified from the Cape West Coast to East London, and volunteers at the NSRI stations is these areas are trained. (The Natal Sharks Board takes care of the KwaZulu Natal area.)

With the decision to offer training to smaller groups regionally, more volunteers will be equipped with the skills needed to assist cetaceans in distress.

Call 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.

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