A specialist team from British Divers Marine Life Rescue and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have recently been to Iceland where they freed a humpback whale from fishing gear within two days of arrival.
The entangled whale was first spotted in Faxafloi Bay, near Reykjavik on July 30th and attempts by local organisations to free the whale had been unsuccessful. The charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation put IceWhale, the Icelandic whalewatching organisation, in touch with BDMLR in the first week of August.
Directors from BDMLR had initially received whale disentanglement training from the Centre for Coastal Studies (CCS) at Provincetown in the US, prior to setting up a Large Whale Disentanglement Team in the UK, so they were included in discussions and advice sought from them.
CSS asked if BDMLR could assist by initially sending some equipment to Iceland, but bearing in mind the dangers associated with untrained prople trying such rescues, BDMLR offered to send a small team to conduct the operation. As it was unusual for a foreign animal rescue team to be in Iceland, the government there was asked for permission and this was granted after several days of internal discussion about which department had jurisdiction.
Three of BDMLR's trustees and directors, Ali Jack, Mark Stevens and Geoff Hammock, flew to Reykjavik on Friday 14th August and were joined there by Brian Sharp from IFAW in the US. With over 40 whale disentanglement rescues under his belt, his knowledge and skills would be invaluable.
The following day, the team went out into the bay on one of the Elding Whale Watching boats, supported by an array of other local boats and a Coast Guard patrol vessel. The flotilla set course for the last known position of the whale from the previous day. Several hours were spent searching for the whale until the call came from another of Elding's boats that they had the whale in their sight.
The whale, whilst hampered by the fishing gear wrapped around its tail stock, body and through its mouth, was busy feeding and the rescue team then spent four hours playing cat and mouse (rather big mouse!) with it, working from a small Zodiac inflatable while they attempted to grapple the trailing line coming from the whale's tail. With the assistance of the support team on board the MV Elding the team were able to predict where the whale would surface for a breath and after several close intercepts struck it lucky and managed to get into a position, allowing them to throw a grapple that caught the line and then deploy their own lines, kegging buoys. The buoys help to slow the whale down, keep it surfacing and hopefully tire it.
For the next 5 hours the whale didn't help as the team tried time and time again to pull the inflatable up the line toward the whale's tail to start the process of cutting lines on the animal using their specialist equipment. This operation involves 'Nantucket sleighrides' where the inflatable is pulled along at several knots with its outboard engine up and out of the water, with the inflatable only being attached to the whale by the team member in the bow holding the rope. The rope cannot be tied to the inflatable as if the whale dived it would take the inflatable under along with the team into a potential nest of sub surface entanglement that would immediately drown anyone who entered the water. On several occasions "Nettie" would try to shake the team off by diving deep pulling the bow of the inflatable underwater, however the quick reactions of the team averted disaster time and time again by letting the rope go just in time. This is without doubt the most dangerous type of rescue the charity engages in and it is not one for the faint-hearted.
Over the course of the Nantuckets the team would pull the inflatable up to within a metre of the thrashing tail of this frightened and confused gigantic animal travelling at speed and would start to cut the line as the tail would breach the water. Several crucial cuts to the entangled line were made, however with darkness falling and utter exhaustion overcoming the team, the kegging buoys were cut off and a satellite telemetry buoy was fitted to the control line so that Nettie could be tracked over night and of course found again the following day.
At 5am sharp on Sunday 16th August, the team set off once again to locate Nettie and quickly found the animal some 18km away from where it was tagged the following night. Now the operation had to start over again, trying to exhaust the animal and bring it to the surface and ideally to a dead stop. Nettie was as determined and as feisty as the previous day and again several hours of Nantucket Sleigh rides continued, but whilst it was evident that Nettie was tiring, it was obvious that the already exhausted team could not sustain a prolonged operation of this magnitude and that the team would tire before the whale did. A regroup was called so that a new strategy could be formulated.
The team came up with a new method of attaching a large 4 foot buoy just behind the tail which it was hoped would stop the animal from diving and bring it to the surface for longer periods giving the team more opportunities to cut the line as the whale presented its tail. A new rig was quickly assembled on board the MV Elding using existing elements of the team's disentanglement equipment and off they went for several more Nantucket sleighrides. The new rig was proving very difficult and quite dangerous to get a decent attachment with Nettie trying to pull the inflatable under on several attempts, but eventually the team managed to attach the rig to within a metre of the whale's tail and the buoy was quickly pulled into position using the ingenious pulley arrangement they had constructed.
The new rig had the desired effect and prevented the whale from diving and also had the unplanned benefit of providing a new separate control line which the team could utilise. The original control and trailing line with 3 kegging buoys attached and covered in potential snagging points and mono filament net which had been causing the team no end of grief through out the operation was discarded and left to trail harmlessly beside the inflatable. The team were now able to pull themselves up to within a metre of the thrashing tail, and each time the whale's tail would breach the surface, careful cuts would be made using the equipment. Eventually the team managed to cut the lines on both sides of the tail stock and the trailing line from underneath and Nettie swam free from the almost certain fatal entanglement. To see a movie of the final cuts being made, see on our Facebook page here.
Pieces of rope remain on the animal as the entanglement was so severe with rope embedded deep into its tail stock, but it is expected that this rope will be expelled from the wounds during the healing process as has been documented on several previous post entanglement events on whales. An additional bridle remains from Nettie's head that runs through its mouth, but with both ends cut it is also expected that this will be expelled over time, possibly during feeding.
The team returned to shore exhausted and aching but exhilarated at the success of their endeavour. There has been so much support and concern for this whale in Iceland and the operation was supported by so many people it is impossible to thank every individual. Special thanks however have to go to Elding Whale Watching and Ice Whale for their concern and assistance. Whale watching boats in the area will be keeping an eye out for Nettie and recording sightings in the hope that the whale sheds the remaining loose lines and recovers fully from its ordeal. BDMLR extends its gratitude and thanks for all the support many others have provided.
To hear Mark Stevens and Geoff Hammock being interviewed by the BBC, please click here.
Postscript. Although this rescue took place over just a weekend, flights and accommodation for the team was not cheap and much of the thirteen bags of specialist equipment taken to Iceland was wrecked during the rescue - poles, carabiners, blades, the telemetry buoy. The charity's one disentanglement kit is now lacking vital equipment and an appeal has been launched to try and recover rescue costs, replace equipment and hopefully fund a second kit that would be deployed as necessary. If you would like to donate, you can do so easily via JustGiving and following the link to our fundraising page here. Thank you.
Photos by courtesy Elding Whale Watching