Against all odds trapped whale freed

By Judith Lavoie, Times Colonist May 30, 2012
In a dramatic rescue, fisheries officers work to free a juvenile humpback whale ensnared by prawn traps in Knight Inlet, about 100 kilometres northwest of Campbell River. A young humpback whale, entangled in prawn traps in Knight Inlet on B.C.’s north coast, has been rescued in the nick of time.
Paul Cottrell, Fisheries and Oceans Canada Pacific marine mammal co-ordinator, knew when he received the call for help on Sunday that there was no time to spare because the trap lines were tying the animal to the ocean floor and every centimetre the tide rose brought the juvenile humpback closer to death.”It was a scramble,” said Cottrell, who has disentangled four humpback whales from fishing gear. By chance, fisheries officers Kyle Jackson and Lindsay Johnston were in the area after responding to a float-plane incident and Cottrell, who raced to Knight Inlet from Vancouver, was also met by DFO cetacean research technician Jared Towers and whale researcher Christie McMillan. The situation was dire for the whale, Cottrell said. Fishermen had laid 50 prawn traps that morning and anchored them to the bottom. When the nine metre whale investigated, ropes got caught around the animal’s fluke (the tail fin) and pectoral fin, tying him to the ocean floor.
“He wasn’t moving at all and he was labouring to breathe and the tide was coming in. All the factors were against us,” Cottrell said. “The gear went straight down to the bottom. There was no slack.” With the prawn fishermen helping, Cottrell used a specially designed cutting tool to sever ropes around the pectoral fin. “Then we worked feverishly on the animal to get the fluke up as high as we could,” Cottrell said. “There was a double wrap around the fluke and [the rope] went straight down. . . . He was just arching to breathe.”
With much manoeuvring of the boat and efforts to bring the tail up, the ropes around the fluke were finally cut. Then Cottrell’s heart sank as the whale remained stationary, tail down. “I thought I’d missed a rope,” he said. “Then slowly he realized he was free and he started to slowly swim off.” Freed humpbacks usually take off in a hurry, but this one was probably stiff, Cottrell said. “He’d been stretched in that fluke down position since morning with his blowhole just out of the water. He was definitely pretty stiff.”
The polysteel ropes rubbed the whale’s pectoral fin raw, but he is likely to make a full recovery, Cottrell said. The rescue was made easier by the whale remaining stationary, he said. “These creatures are very powerful, but they really are gentle giants.”
The quick call from the prawn fishermen saved the whale’s life, Cottrell said. “They did exactly the right thing.”
Humpback whale populations are increasing on the B.C. coast and three out of the last four entanglements have been in Knight Inlet, so Fisheries and Oceans will be talking with the prawn industry to see what changes can be made, Cottrell said. “There are lots of things that we can look at, like the type of gear.” Humpbacks are naturally curious and that can get them into trouble, Cottrell said. “And this one was just a kid.”
The Marine Mammal Incident Hotline is 1-800-465-4336.


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