British Divers Marine Life Rescue
British Divers Marine Life Rescue (photo: Steve Marsh)
British Divers Marine Rescue


2015-06-12 10:31:08

Humpback whale dies from entanglement off Scotland

On Thursday June 4th at approximately 16:30 hours a fishing boat was hauling creels North of Helmsdale on the East coast of Scotland when the skipper noticed a whale alongside a set of his creel end line marker buoys.

He quickly realised that the whale was entangled in his gear so called on the assistance of the smaller fishing vessel that was also fishing close by.  They managed to haul two of the creels and cut these free from the line however the whale was stuck fast so they tied a large red buoy onto the line to aid in future location of the whale.

Upon return to Helmsdale harbour, the skipper attempted to find out whom to report the stranded whale to, but kept hitting dead ends until eventually he managed to get a number for British Divers Marine Life Rescue.  An alert was put out by BDMLR to medics in the area around 19:30 hours.  BDMLR Area Coordinator Steph Waterston headed off to meet up with the skipper and Scottish Director Alistair Jack loaded the disentanglement trailer and left for the journey to Helmsdale.  Members of BDMLR’s volunteer Large Whale Disentanglement Team were contacted and mobilised.

Later, Alistair and Steph met up with the skipper who was ready to take them out to the location to assess the whale and confirm species.  Alistair and Steph viewed the video footage that had been taken by the skipper and confirmed that the animal was indeed a Humpback and that it looked very tired.

The Trio left Helmsdale Harbour on board the FV Reliant for the 40 minute trip to the location of the whale. Upon arrival at the coordinates using spot and flood lights, an attempt was made to locate the large red buoy that had been tied to the whale but all that could be seen was surrounding creel line marker buoys. Alistair asked for all deck and spot lights to be turned off to aid in location using moon light but the whale could not been seen nor heard. They returned to Helmsdale arriving around 01:20 hours.  It was agreed that either the whale had sadly died and sunk, or that it was not actually fixed but was mobile and may have dragged the fishing gear North of the original location.

At first light, 03.30 hours on Friday June 5th, Steph met up with BDMLR volunteer Audrey Gunn and the skipper at Badbea monument at Berridale to see if the whale could be sighted from land. Half an hour later Alistair arrived at Badbea with the BDMLR Incident Command Unit and was met by three more BDMLR coordinators and members of the LWDT team Brian Corbett, Noel Hawkins and Cath Bain. Unfortunately the weather had deteriorated and a low lying mist was hanging over Badbea which hampered the search from the cliff tops.

The team returned to Helmsdale harbour which would be used as the base for the continued search and intended rescue operation. The Incident Command Unit was set up and all disentanglement equipment was double checked. The remainder of the team Amy Ferguson, Kelly Beatson and Corinne Gordon, arrived from Edinburgh at approx. 05:00 Hours.  A reminder session on the Disentanglement kit was conducted by Alistair to re-familiarise the team with the gear as it had been some time since if had last been in action. The satellite tag was also activated and left on to ensure a good lock was obtained by the Argos satellite.

None of the fishing vessels at Helmsdale were able to leave the harbour due to the wind direction and Caithness Sea Coast’s RIB (rigid inflatable boat) was similarly affected.  However, a RIB was located belonging to Sea Shepherd based in Scrabster and they were willing to assist. Additionally a local fisherman contacted the owner of the tour boat also based in Helmsdale to enquire whether he would be willing to act as a standby vessel and he agreed, so the BDMLR team’s special boat was inflated and launched and the disentanglement equipment was loaded on board.

Meanwhile the Sea Shepherd crew arrived with their RIB “Joker” and proceeded to launch the boat. The weather forecast had been previously checked and was showing a wind direction of South Easterly all day and increasing in strength to force 5 so a decision was made to try to establish the location and current condition of the whale.  The team left Helmsdale harbour around 10:00 hours and upon clearing the safety of the harbour walls was immediately buffeted by a heavy swell travelling in a North Westerly direction. The team continued on for a few hundred meters when Alistair instructed the Coxswain to turn back as the sea conditions were too dangerous, and even if the whale could be found there was nothing that could be done in these sea conditions.

The team returned to the Harbour despondent that they had failed in their attempt, however it was decided that due to the continuing weather front that was forecast for the remainder of the Friday and Saturday that only a shore based search would continue. Caithness Sea Watch and WDC shore Watch were alerted and requested to have their members search the coast line from Helmsdale North over the coming two days. The kit was packed away and the team stood down until Sunday.  All team members returned home.

On Saturday the 6th June Sea Shepherd sent their crew to Badbea to continue the search for the whale and unfortunately managed to spot the whale lying on its side.  They reported what they had seen to Steph and Alistair who immediately headed back to Helmsdale to meet up with the Sea Shepherd Crew.  The Sea Shepherd RIB “Joker” was launched and they proceeded North to Badbea and confirmed that the whale was indeed dead.

Alistair contacted Andrew Brownlow from Scottish Marine Animal Strandings Scheme to enquire what he would like done with the carcass. Andrew informed Alistair that he would like BDMLR to try to recover the carcass for necropsy but also that there was a production company called “Big Wave TV” that have been waiting two years to obtain a decent whale carcass that could be used in an upcoming TV documentary for ITV.  Andrew put Big Wave TV in contact with Alistair and it was agreed that the BDMLR team would attempt to recover the whale back to Helmsdale.  Alistair discussed the situation with the Helmsdale Harbour Master who agreed to allow the whale to be taken in to the harbour on the Sunday, and tied up overnight for removal on the Monday.  Alistair also spoke with the Sea Shepherd crew and the skipper of the original vessel that found the whale to confirm that both were willing to assist in the following day’s operation. Plans were set to attempt the recovery around 12:00 hours the following day with a planned entry into Helmsdale harbour at high tide which was 16:00 hours.

The team met up at 11:00 Hours on Sunday the 7th June at Helmsdale harbour and were also joined by a film crew from Big Wave TV that had driven up from Cornwall during the night. Additionally a Remotely Operated Aerial Vehicle (ROAV) and pilot were despatched from Inverness to capture film footage from above.  The team set off on board the boats around 12:00 hours and was on scene within 40 minutes. The extent of the entanglement was quickly assessed by Alistair and a tow strap was attached around the whale’s tail stock. Alistair proceeded to cut several lines to free the whale from the entanglement which included having to cut a line going down to the sea bed.

A creel was recovered from the side of the whale which was found to be squashed when pulled to the surface.  An attempt was made by “Joker” to tow the whale however it was found that the whale was still stuck fast. Alistair assessed the whale again and found a second line heading down to the seabed so this was also quickly cut and the tow could begin in earnest.  ”Joker” made a valiant attempt at towing the whale but after an hour had travelled just short of a third of the distance back to Helmsdale and had managed to sustain a speed of 2 knots, but due to the light weight of the RIB was having difficulty steering and the wind direction was constantly pushing the whale and RIB further out to sea.

A decision was made to transfer the tow to the fishing boat that was considerably heavier at 12 tonnes and should not be affected by the wind. Once the tow had been transferred the new towing boat managed to sustain a steady 2 knot tow towards Helmsdale harbour without steering problems.  At 15:30 hours the flotilla arrived at the harbour and with minimum of effort the whale was guided through the entrance and safely tied up just below the slip way. The slip way and harbour quayside was cordoned off to prevent local people from accessing the whale due to the potential bio hazard that it represented.

The following day Alistair made an assessment of the whale at low tide and found that the original point of entanglement was caused by the floating line between the creels being caught in the whales mouth with the line catching behind the whales baleen plates on the left had side.  An additional black rope was identified which was looped around the body which cut into the left eye but this was not attached to anything and was indeed a separate entanglement situation. The whale had been hamstrung during the entanglement with ropes leading back from both pectoral fins back to its tail stock under tension. The tail stock was found to have been bent due to the tension of the ropes and the tail stock and right hand fluke were also wrapped in creel line.

A basic necropsy was conducted by the pathologists from SMASS and the whale was loaded into a truck for transportation to Wales where it would be frozen until required for the TV documentary.   It was confirmed that whale had been carrying the black lines for two to three months and that as well as causing infection, they would also have severely compromised the animal’s ability to feed.  The later catching of the creel lines, although fatal, would have saved the whale from suffering from a much longer and more painful death.

BDMLR would like to thank all the volunteers, skippers, agencies and other charities that were involved in this incident for their vigilence, help and understanding.


Photos top to bottom by BDMLR volunteers: Stephanie Waterston, John Urquhart (x2), Audrey Gunn

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