Whale Riders

A small group of volunteers has committed itself to untangling whales that get caught in fishing nets. The work is difficult, dangerous – and doesn’t always go according to plan.

artwork depicting whalesillustrations deviantART user Achah

I wasn’t sure what the white marks were, but the first right whale I saw had one just in front of its blowhole, and a few more on its peduncle, the thick stalk that leads to its tail. It was like the blackness of its skin was paint that had been scraped off. The second whale had one just above its upper lip – more a speck, really – and another, larger scoring in the middle of its back. The third whale was unmarked. I was told it was one of the lucky ones.

I was on the Bay of Fundy, just off the coast of Maine, with a team of biologists from the New England Aquarium in Boston. We had been out since sunup, searching for right whales. Whenever we came across one, the biologists photographed it with a startling zeal. Right whales have raised patches of toughened skin, called callosities, scattered across their heads, lips, and chins. The callosities form a unique pattern, like fingerprints, and can be used to tell the whales apart.

In addition to the callosities, some of the whales – quite a few of them, I was noticing – had those scorings scattered across their bodies. The biologists were careful to note them, too. Once the frenzy of documentation was finished, I was told they were scars from entanglements with fishing gear. Right whales are so strong that they can usually pull free of the nets and lines, but sometimes they can’t. When that happens, disentanglement teams will ride out to try to cut the whale loose.

That evening, back at the field house in Lubec, I asked what disentangling a whale was like. (Having just spent the day marveling at how big right whales could be, the act struck me as being almost absurdly dangerous.) “Oh, you should talk to Mackie Greene,” said Dan Pendleton, one of the biologists. Greene, who lives just across the border on Campobello Island, is one of nine people in the world certified to free right whales.

It took me a while to get in touch with Greene – he’s not a big email guy – but eventually I reached him on the phone. I told him I had heard he had some good stories.

“Sure, I’ve got a story,” Greene said.

September 22, 2004

It was dark when the two boats pulled away from Cape Sable Island, off the southern tip of Nova Scotia. Greene and Chris Slay were in the smaller one, an 18-foot fast inflatable called Jupiter; Slay was at the helm. Scott Kraus and Amy Knowlton, from the New England Aquarium, were in Galatea, a 45-foot converted lobster boat. They were headed southwest some 40 miles, out to the Roseway Basin. The morning was cool but clear, with a light fog like thin spun wool.

artwork depicting a whale

Greene, Knowlton, Kraus, and Slay had stayed up late the night before, strategizing. While surveying in the Roseway Basin a couple of weeks earlier, the aquarium biologists had spotted an entangled right whale. They hadn’t gotten a really close look at it, but what they had seen was bad: Fishing line was wrapped around the whale’s head, back, and one of its flippers. The lines were taut, cutting. It was the sort of entanglement that, if left alone, could be fatal.

Even so, the four knew they had to be prudent. This wasn’t some straightforward inshore job, like a whale that had swum into the whorl of a fishing weir. This was a right whale in the open ocean. If things went bad, they would be far from home. But the forecast called for light winds, and they decided to give it try. If they didn’t, they might not get another chance.

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is one of the rarest large whales in the world. Its history is not what you would call uplifting. It got its name from New England whalers, for whom it was the right one to kill. It spent much of its time close to shore, swimming well within reach of harpooners’ rowboats, and when killed it floated, unlike other species that sank when struck. Its buoyant body yielded vats of oil, along with more than 200 six-foot-long blades of baleen that lined its mouth. Called “whalebone,” those blades had any number of domestic uses, from corsets to umbrellas to venetian blinds. As writer Philip Hoare has put it, “If whale oil was the petrol of its day, then whalebone was its plastic.”

Rarity and regulation brought the hunts to an end: the former, in the mid-eighteenth century, after whalers had killed so many right whales that they became too hard to find; the latter, in 1935, when the League of Nations forbade its explicit killing. By that point, the population may have numbered in the dozens. Almost 70 years later, only around 500 North Atlantic right whales survive. (The southern right whale still numbers about 15,000 individuals.)

For those who labor on the right whale’s behalf, its recovery is frustratingly slow, made all the more so because the main causes of mortality – ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement – are well known. Biologists have had success shifting shipping lanes away from areas of high whale activity, but entanglement is thornier, more pervasive. A recent study found that 83 percent of right whales show scars from entanglement; of those, 59 percent were caught more than once. One whale has been entangled seven times.


The Jupiter was a good deal faster than the Galatea and soon outdistanced the larger vessel, but it was still more than two hours before Slay and Greene reached the area where the entangled right whale was supposed to be. After an hour of searching, they found it at 9:33 am. It was the first right whale they saw, actually, which they took to be a good sign.

Greene started to assemble the disentanglement gear. He had an assortment of grapples and knives at his disposal – flying knives, fixed knives, V-shaped knives – but he chose one of the new, more robust serrated blades and attached it to the end of a six-foot pole; he attached that to another six-foot pole. Then he steeled his knees for the task ahead. Normally, he would have a pair of kneepads, but he’d forgotten them. Still, he was pumped up, confident.

Slay, meanwhile, was filming the right whale as it swam near the boat. When he got his first good look at it, his heart sank. The whale was huge – full grown, nearly 45 feet long – and it was badly entangled. Line was wrapped twice around its head, slicing into its blowhole. As for the flipper, it was wrapped so tightly it was almost white. The whale on the whole looked shrunken; its skin was pale and patchy. Slay could only imagine the pain it must be in.

Greene had come to whales in part because the fish were few. He had grown up on Campobello Island, in New Brunswick, and although he always wanted to be a fisherman, by the time he was old enough to get his own boat in the early 1990s, most of the major fisheries had collapsed. But he loved the water, and since he didn’t want to move, he started leading whale-watching tours in the summers; in the winters he fished for lobster.

One summer, a humpback whale was entangled near Campobello, and biologists from the New England Aquarium spent days trying to free it. Greene found himself wanting in on the action. It was fishing gear that whales kept getting caught in, and as a fisherman, he felt like he owed them something.

artwork depicting a whale

Just anyone isn’t allowed to disentangle whales, though; in US waters, the Marine Mammal Protection Act strictly prohibits interacting with marine mammals, no matter how well-intentioned a person might be. The certification process is rigorous and involves an extended apprenticeship. To get trained, Greene went to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, where biologists had pioneered many of the current rescue methods. In 2002, he and two other fishermen formed the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, one of only a few teams on the East Coast certified to work with right whales.

Although it is hard to know just how many get entangled each year, all species of large whales do, and all of them are dangerous. But right whales are a special case. To engage with them is to engage with their evolutionary history. More than other whales, they are strong, built for endurance swimming; their feeding style, called skim feeding, compels them to swim against powerful currents for hours, mouth agape. On top of that, they are skittish. Some whales, like humpbacks, were almost fun to work on. They seemed to understand that Greene was trying to help, slowing down and even stopping sometimes. Not right whales. What you had was a strong animal that was scared and in pain and didn’t tire easily and was quick to defend itself. Up to 50 feet long, weighing 70 tons, they were surprisingly flexible. Flippers or flukes would swing in from impossible angles as they flailed at their pursuers. Greene could understand their fear; right whales hadn’t always made out so well when people charged at them with sharp objects.

But when it came to disentangling, Greene found he had an aptitude. He knew boats, he knew knives, and, having spent years watching them, he knew whales. He felt he could sense what they were going to do. In the previous two years, going out five or six times a year, he had yet to meet a whale that he couldn’t de-truss. More than that, he had a taste for it. He didn’t want whales to get all tied up, of course, but whenever he heard one needed his help, he couldn’t help feel a thrill. There was nothing like a disentanglement attempt. The wind in his face, the incredible focus, just him and the whale and the boat and the knife. When he was done, he wanted to leap out of the boat and run across the water.


Greene sat in the Jupiter holding the bladed pole. When he was with his own team, he usually drove the boat; when he was with Slay, Slay drove. Greene liked it that way. Slay was a speed freak, but a good wheelman. He could get close to the whale. Sometimes, he would even steer his boat right over it, onto its back.

The two waited for the Galatea to arrive, which she did about half an hour later. With her spotting, Slay started to make quick runs at the whale, easing the Jupiter toward where he thought it might come up to breathe. He was trying to sneak up on it, the routine of a disentanglement attempt: When the whale comes up for air, the boat zips in and the knife wielder leans over the side and gets a few seconds to hack at the ropes. Then wait and repeat and wait and repeat until the whale is free.

But this whale wasn’t having it. Rather than swim at the surface, it would snatch a quick breath and dive, sometimes for up to 20 minutes, and then resurface hundreds of yards away. Slay would race towards it, but with the swell it was hard to see, and by the time Slay got the boat to it, the whale had usually dived again. The one time they got close enough, Greene leaned far over the side and plunged his knife at the lines around the whale’s head. He felt the blade catch – contact! – but the whale was already diving, its huge form melting into the dark water.

Then the wind, which had been light all morning, picked up. The sea was starting to get rough.

Entanglement is hardly limited to the whales of the western North Atlantic, says Michael Fishbach, the director of the Great Whale Conservancy, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored project. More than half of the humpbacks in southeast Alaska have entanglement scars. In the Sea of Cortez, where Fishbach studies blue whales, he recently helped free an entangled humpback. “It’s a problem everywhere,” he says. “Probably nine or ten whales are entangled for every one that people see.”

But entanglement risk is particularly acute in the North Atlantic, where it is the leading cause of death for large whales. Part of the reason, Fishbach says, is that the continental shelf there is wider than it is in the Pacific, and 95 percent of fishing takes place in shelf waters. During the height of the lobster season in the Gulf of Maine, for instance, more than one million vertical lines hang from surface buoys to lobster traps on the seafloor. Think of a kelp forest – a hazardous one.

Saving Valentina: Great Whale Conservancy on You TubeMichael Fishbach narrates his encounter with a humpback whale entangled in a fishing net.

How to mitigate the risk over so wide an area? “A major challenge is that we don’t know where the whales pick up the gear,” Amy Knowlton of the New England Aquarium says. “Is it that you have a lot of gear in one area and only one or two whales, or an area where a lot of whales pass through, but not as much gear?” In the past decade, she says, there have been several attempts to compel fishermen to fish differently, either by using different types of gear, or configuring it in ways thought to make whales less susceptible.

The fishermen are sympathetic, but also frustrated. For all the changes they’re ordered to make, rates of entanglement remain largely unchanged. “The evidence suggests that most gear modification rules don’t make a big difference,” says Hauke Kite-Powell, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He believes that, as with ship strikes, spatial exclusion – keeping fishing out of certain zones – is the only effective means of preventing entanglement. He is working on a model for Maine waters that will identify areas where whales are most likely to encounter fishing gear. “We need to know where the hotspots are,” he says. “Then, you could adopt some targeted management measures to reduce the risk.”


With the weather going to hell, Slay abandoned stealth for power. Whenever the whale surfaced, he opened up the Jupiter’s throttle, surging forward until he had shrunk the distance between boat and whale. Then he would dial it back to maneuver in close, but they were always two seconds shy of where they needed to be before the whale dove again.

They only got within cutting range three times. The time they were closest to the whale’s head, Greene managed to get the blade hooked into a line between the mouth and the flipper. As the whale started to roll and duck under the Jupiter, Greene sawed for all he was worth. The boat heaved as the whale swept beneath him, and he felt the tug and sudden snap! of a line giving way. But when the whale resurfaced, neither of its two headwraps had loosened.

That was as close as he would get. Finally, after almost nine hours, he and Slay were so exhausted that it was no longer safe to continue. They reluctantly decided to call it a day. As Slay motored away in the growing dark, Greene sat in the bow, mulling the day’s events. His whole body ached, and he knew he’d be black and blue in the morning. Worse, he had never failed to save a whale before. It was a raw feeling.

The good thing, though, was that he’d learned a lot. He’d learned, for instance, just how hard disentanglement could be. He’d learned not to take his earlier successes for granted. Still, it was hard not to dwell on what might have gone differently. Maybe if he’d been driving, he would have gotten closer. But those sorts of thoughts weren’t helpful. If he had been driving and Slay had been cutting, he would have thought, Maybe if I’d been cutting… And anyway, Slay was probably thinking the same thing. He let it go. He was only one guy, even if he wished there were more of him. That was what he wanted sometimes: a boat full of Mackie Greenes.

March 3, 2005

The whale lived for another six months. Greene got word that its body had washed up on Wreck Island, a barrier island off the Virginia coast. A Coast Guard helicopter pilot saw the huge carcass, partially buried in the sand. Dozens of gulls surrounded it, picked at it.

The next day, a team of veterinarians boated out to perform what they could of a necropsy. It was a grisly scene. The line cinching the whale’s flipper had cut to the bone; the other lines wrapped around its head and threaded through its baleen must have made it hard to feed.

Greene later learned that the whale was a female, #2301 in the New England Aquarium’s catalog of known North Atlantic right whales. She had been born in the winter of 1993, and had given birth to her first calf off the Florida coast a couple of years before, in 2003. That made the loss especially galling. There were so few right whales, and to lose a breeding female was devastating. And the pain she must have been in until she died? Greene tried not to think about that.

After hearing Greene’s tale I sat for a while, feeling glum. I have to confess, I had expected a different story. I had expected Greene to tell me one that was more uplifting, about a time when the stakes were high and maybe things got a little hairy, but ultimately everything worked out and the good guys prevailed and the whale swam away free.

Then I realized that I hadn’t asked Greene to tell me about a time when he came away the hero. I had asked him to tell me about a time that he remembered.

Eric Wagner lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter. He has written for the Journal about kiwis, spotted owls, cranes, and terns.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.