Rescue of Humpback Whale Tangled in Fishing Net Highlights Continuing Peril to Big Marine Life
Editors Note: On February 14, 2011, while he was sailing in the Sea of Cortez with his family, Michael Fishbach — a staff member of Earth Island Institute’s Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters and co-director the Great Whale Conservancy — came across a young humpback whale entangled in a massive fishing net. This is his wife, Heather Watrous’, account of how five people in a small fishing boat rescued the cetacean whom they later christened “Valentina".
WE had set out before dawn in a local fishing boat, 25 feet of pool-blue fiberglass, outboard 4-stroke engine, leaving the Loreto Marina as the stars were fading from the sky but the street lamps were still on. A few people fished for mackerel on the rock wall surrounding the quiet marina, we heard the occasional splash of a brown pelican as it submerged into the underwater diner below.
Captain Alberto Davis was at the wheel and Michael Fishbach, marine naturalist and conservationist was our guide.
After steering a few miles south, we spent the morning watching a fin whale closely chasing a large blue whale, an unlikely but occasionally occurring cross-cultural courtship. Feeling that we were interrupting something best left to two whales alone, we moved on through the channel between Carmen and Danzante Islands, meeting up with a dispersed pod of bottlenose dolphins, lazily checking us out, grabbing a quick bow ride, and moving back on to their watery path in the opposite direction.
Then, several miles east past the southern tip of Carmen, Michael spotted something large and unmoving in the water. We moved near, a sense of seriousness quieting all of us.
It was a young humpback whale entangled in a large, microfilament fishing net. Barely able to move, it was in a trance-like state of energy-conservation, trying to maintain just enough buoyancy to lift its blowhole out of the water to breathe between bouts of rest.
The whale did not seem to notice us at first, and I must say, initially we thought we had come upon a the dead whale, afloat with decomposition gasses. After we sat by for several minutes, however, it let out a strained wheezing breath, showing sudden alarm at noticing our presence. We all felt a great concern for this immense and powerful life before us, entirely trapped in a 200-foot-long nylon body bag, helpless and near death.
We radioed the local Marine Park authorities but were told help would perhaps arrive in an hour. We knew couldn’t afford to wait that long. We briefly discussed the threats we faced if we undertook a rescue. We understood that cutting the whale free could take hours or days, and that without some level of cooperation from the whale, it was likely to prove futile and dangerous. But none of us wanted to be bystanders in the death of a whale we might be capable of releasing. So we began.
Michael decided to follow the advice of the father of whale disentanglement, John Lien from Newfoundland, which was to introduce himself to the whale, in person. He slipped into the water and swam to within a foot of the whale’s eye. It let out another strained, alarmed breath, but did not move away. Michael moved around to assess the extent of entanglement and decide if the untangling was to be done from water or boat... definitely from the boat.
The animal was entirely wrapped, from the tail to the top shoulder joint of the pectoral fins, and even over the dorsal fin. Michael quickly released the dorsal fin from net with a small knife, but could see that without dive equipment there was no way to get near the rest of the body which was hanging low, about 15 to 20 feet deep in the water. Besides, being in the water was more dangerous for those attempting to help, especially once the pectoral fins were set free. So he came back aboard.
Meanwhile, Alberto, our captain, and another member of our sudden, makeshift, rescue crew, George Brasington, had managed to grab hold of a floating section of the net. We kept the boat as close to the whale as possible by maneuvering with an oar, and slowly began cutting away the net and pulling it up onboard.
Photo by Michael Fishbach
Several times, as the whale felt itself increasingly more free of net, it dove down for a half-mile swim, tugging us along gently at one or two knots. We were also in constant danger of entanglement ourselves, as the more microfilament we brought aboard, the more likely our limbs and digits were to be caught up in it. Cut, pull, and check our bodies for entanglement; that was all we did for another 45 minutes. Then, finally, the tension was gone. The young humpback was free again. In so quick a time, we released this unfathomably beautiful young life, and with it the possibility of its progeny and continued evolution. We felt very lucky, and very humbled.
We thought it would be off to feed, but instead we were blessed to witness the dance-like movements of renewed freedom. The whale treated us to an hour of breeching, flipper slapping, tail lobbing, and horizontal surface rolls, blood still streaming from where the net had cut into its skin as we pulled. It was a symphony for freedom.
This was a momentary triumph. We all knew this whale would face innumerable threats in the course its life.
Since microfilament fishing nets began to be used, nearly every day marine mammals somewhere or the other get entangled in the mesh and drown. Evolution is not fast enough to teach cetaceans, pinnepeds, and sirenians (manatees /dugongs) how to cope with the constant onslaught of human intervention in the oceans. Hundreds of thousands (mostly smaller species) drown from our nets, vessels, and sound impacts every year.
Considering this, it is no particular surprise that we found an entangled whale in the Sea of Cortez. As in other coastal areas across the world, in Loreto Bay too, both humans and cetaceans, are trying to survive off these once-rich waters. The two efforts continually come into conflict.
Sixteen days after we released Valentina, a different young humpback was spotted seven miles from the rescue spot, its tail severely entangled in a similar net that was weighed down with an anchor. This whale was not in a straightjacket, as ours had been, and proved too dangerous for park officials to get close enough to release.
Its fate is unknown.