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NSRI Station 21 (St Francis Bay) crew were lucky to escape with their lives on the evening of 16 July, when their vessel collided with a whale during a routine medevac.

On a still evening in July, NSRI Station 21 duty crew responded to a medevac callout at roughly 11pm.

“Medevacs are routine for us,” says station commander Sara Jane Smith, “and this one was fairly standard – until the whale encounter.”

Close to 1am, Sara made contact with the crew to offer to make coffee and hot chocolate for them on their return. Loadshedding was about to kick in, and she knew they would appreciate the sustenance.

“That’s when I received a voice note from crew member Michael Swanepoel, calmly explaining that they had hit something. Although a little rattled, he was calm, collected. The extent of the damage to the vessel and the crew was reported, but because of the professional manner in which the report was made, the situation seemed urgent but under control. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined what I would see when they came into harbour.”

whale

En route back to base, a violent collision caused the vessel “Rescue 21” to come to a dead stop. Fearing that they had hit another vessel, coxswain Garth Shamley and crew rallied to assess any injuries and damage to the vessel.

“The only thing I saw in a split second was a huge dark object and then the impact on the port side, right next to the console,” says crew member and medic Johannes Loubser. “It was deathly silent on board afterwards. … There was an instant foul oily smell on the boat. I initially thought we might have collided with a drifting container of some sort.”

Another crew member, Yvette Maritz, was knocked unconscious: “I must have been out for about a minute. After regaining consciousness, I was very disoriented and confused. After realising something had happened, I noticed I had a chipped tooth and tremendous pain to my upper left thigh.”

While most crew members incurred injuries, thankfully no one was critically hurt.

“Rescue 21”, however, wasn’t so lucky.

The force of the impact had been enough to dislodge the vessel’s entire console, and rip a large hole in its flank (it is currently undergoing assessment and may not be salvageable).

Garth turned the vessel around to see what they had hit, assuming it was another vessel. Instead, he saw spray from the whale’s blowhole as it moved on towards Oyster Bay.

whale

“There is something to be said watching a whole crew – who’re always prepared to go out at any time of time of day or night, because it’s what we do – leave the harbour intact, and return to port broken; when you realise that your crew, with fractured ribs, swollen bodies, bloody noses, maintain such extreme professionalism through what only could have been a horrific event,” says Sara.

The whale is believed to be an adult female humpback whale of about 15 to 18 metres in length, who had most likely been startled by the vessel while sleeping close to the surface of the water. She was unlikely to have been seriously injured by the incident.

The NSRI assists with whale incidents on a regular basis: 28 whales were assisted in 2020, seven in 2021, and 17 in 2022.

“The professionalism of the crew, in my opinion, was beyond the call of duty,” says Sara. “Their priority during the incident was to establish what they hit, and then to get the boat and their fellow crew members home safely. Sure, it’s what we do, but I think in this case, the crew deserve credit.”


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