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When reports of a juvenile humpback whale caught in a fishing rope inside of the Port of Gqeberha were received by the South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN), a group of volunteers immediately sprang into action.

Sea Rescue has partnered with the SAWDN in training 140 volunteers from 18 stations to perform intricate disentanglement operations.

According to Justin Erasmus, station commander of Station 6 (Gqeberha), the whale was quite calm when they arrived on the scene. While the goal in this situation is to free the whale, the team’s first and main concern has to be the safety of their crew, says Erasmus. This is why it’s essential that everyone involved has experience in whale disentanglement.

The first step in freeing a whale caught up in a net or rope is to attach a working line onto the entanglement, which has a marker buoy fixed to it so the rescue team can spot the whale if it dives below the surface. Erasmus’ team usually approaches a trapped whale quietly and with caution, as they tend to get spooked by the boat’s motors.

“The working line is then fed to a second, bigger vessel that will start slowing the whale down. The cutting team on boat one then works their way up the rope towards the whale without their motor running,” Erasmus explains. “If needed they will attach more buoys to the line to tire the whale out more. Only once the whale is calm and staying on the surface, do they attempt to start cutting. This whale, however, was not severely entangled and it only took one cut with specialised cutting equipment to free it from the rope and buoys it was dragging.”

The SAWDN and Sea Rescue crews watched the whale for over an hour, before losing sight of it and returning to their bases. The whale was later spotted between a tanker and the quayside, so the crews returned to the scene to try and corral the whale back out to sea.

“The only thing we can do in these situations is make a noise with the boats and hope the whale swims out of the harbour. This has never really been successful, as they have a mind of their own,” says Erasmus. “All attempts to coax it out were futile so it was decided to leave it alone, hoping that at high tide it would have more space to swim out. On checking on the whale later that day there was no sign of it and it is presumed that it made its way out of the confined space and out of the harbour.”

If you spot a whale in distress, Erasmus advises that you contact the NSRI for help. He stressed that you should not approach a whale as they are immensely powerful animals that can cause serious injuries if not approached by an expert team.

You can contact NSRI’s Emergency Operations Centre on 087 094 9774.

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