Volunteers from British Divers Marine Life Rescue's Large Whale Disentanglement Team have successfully released a humpback whale from creel lines in the north of Scotland.
Date of Incident: 8th to 9thJanuary 2016
Location: Loch Eriboll, North West Scotland
Position: 58°49’ N 004° 68’ W (Approx.)
Species: Humpback Whale Megaptera Novaeangliae
Friday January 8th 2016
Around 13:00hrs on Friday, Ali Jack, BDMLR’s Scottish Director was contacted by a fisherman who said the local fish farm in Loch Eriboll, Sutherland, had reported a large whale approximately 40 foot long lying stationary, south east of the fish farm at Laid. The whale was alive and was entangled in creel lines from lightweight prawn pots round its head and tail and seemed to be anchored in one location.
Ali checked the weather forecast which indicated that there would be a very short weather window of around five hours to attempt a rescue the following day before the wind picked back up again into severe gale conditions and contacted BDMLR head office and asked that a text be sent out to their Large Whale Disentanglement Team to assemble a rescue team at Durness for first light the following day.
Having collected and checked disentanglement equipment ready for the following day, Ali gave the fish farm a call to discuss support needs. The representative of Scottish Sea Farms explained that they were happy to assist and could provide boats and crew to support the rescue effort. Vessels available were a large landing craft and a RIB style plastic fast work boat.
By mid-afternoon the BDMLR team had been confirmed as Ali Jack (Wick) from Noel Hawkins (Ullapool), Brian Corbett (Dundee), David Scott (Glasgow), Anna Oliver (Glasgow), Cath Bain (Nairn) and observers Donald Mitchell (Durness) and Laura Shirra (Ullapool). It was arranged that the team would meet up at the fish farm at Laid at 08:00 hours on the 9th.
In the meantime, new disentanglement equipment was to be flown up to Inverness from BDMLR’s office by Graham Mountford in his light plane on Saturday morning. Following the team’s rescue of an entangled humpback in Iceland in August last year, much of the Scottish kit had been damaged or lost and it was not certain what may be needed.
Saturday 9th January 2016
Having arrived at Laid 03:30, Ali then drove to Durness in search of a mobile phone signal from where was able to text the team. At 07:45 hours and with daylight starting to force its way over the horizon the team set off back to Laid.
The fish farm crew were already there and launched their boats to allow the BDMLR volunteers to locate and assess the stricken animal. The whale had moved from its last known position but splashing and whale blows to the north east showed where it was. The whale was very active, possibly due it struggling to keep its head above water on the high tide. The thrashing of the whale actually broke the line that ran round its head down to the seabed, allowing the humpback to dramatically breach in front of the team.
The immediate decision was to return to Laid and prepare and load the equipment along with the inflatable boat and engine onto the landing craft. Three of the BDMLR team headed back to the whale on the fish farm’s fast work boat while the rest prepared the equipment on the landing craft as it sailed.
The inflatable was prepared and engine fitted and the satellite telemetry buoy was assembled and activated. When the boats arrived at the entanglement site there was no sign of the whale so the inflatable was launched by use of the landing craft bow door and Ali (at helm), Brian and Noel set off to try to search for the whale
Within 15 minutes the whale was located by the fast work boat and although anchored was dragging the remaining gear so was not completely immobile. The rescue team in the inflatable returned to the landing craft to collect a grapple, control line and small buoy and returned to the whale which was moving slowly. The team attempted to grapple the line and buoys below the surface and on the third attempt they managed to get a hold of the line.
The inflatable was pulled up along the control line and the buoys and creel line were pulled over the bow of the inflatable, lifting the whale’s tail so it was underneath the bow. The control line was quickly tied directly onto the buoys just above the tail and the line was discarded overboard. With the inflatable now sitting right over the whale’s tail an assessment was made of the extent of entanglement using a mask. The line was entangled around the tail stock and flukes and there were also at least two wraps could be seen around the head in the blowholes. The team attempted to reach the line behind the blowholes to cut them but with only two poles onboard they fell well short of their target.
The team returned to the landing craft to retrieve the remaining poles but with only four available it was realised it would be touch and go whether they could reach the head from the safe location of above the anchored tail. It was also decided to attach the telemetry buoy in case the whale needed tracking, as there was a chance the whale could yet break the anchoring line to its tail. The team repositioned itself above the whale’s tail and tried to reach the line round the head with the four poles but they were still too short.
A new plan was devised to hold the control line at the stern of the inflatable, positioning the boat four metres further up the whale using paddles to try to get closer to the head. With David joining Ali, Noel and Brian on the inflatable, the team decided to try to get hold of the trailing line attached to its head that had broken free earlier, using two poles and a single jam hook. The team pulled the line in over the bow and positioned the inflatable directly over the whale with the right pectoral flipper directly under the boat. Ali had been assessing the behavior and range of movement of the whale and felt that the position was a relatively safe one for the team under the circumstances.
With the line from the head now acting like a horse’s bridle, the team was able to keep the whale’s head under control by exerting more pressure. Although the whale made several attempts to pull its head down, David and Ali were able to keep it just below the surface but still allowing it to be able to surface to breath. Using a mask, Brian leant over the side and was able to cut the lines from its head, but saw that there were two wraps around its rostrum preventing the whale from opening its mouth. This line was also cut and when hauled in showed a creel pot attached.
With the head and mouth now free the whale seemed slightly more active. Some time was spent surveying the extent of the entanglement using a mask and this showed two or three wraps around the tail stock and two around each fluke, with a line running forward down the right hand side and around the right pectoral flipper. It was also identified that the control line appeared to be connected to line coming from the tail stock, with the line around the right tail fluke still attaching the whale to the seabed.
Cuts were made on the lines around the left tail fluke and to the line around the pectoral fin, but this had an unexpected effect in that cutting this line released the whale from the control line and the seabed. The whale swam off still with a few wraps around its tail, but these were loose and non-threatening.
The operation was completed by 12.00 hours, with the team recovering and packing all equipment by 12.45 hours, just in time to leave before the weather from closed in bringing heavy wind and rain.
Thanks are due to BDMLR Large Whale Disentanglement Team volunteers Ali Jack, Noel Hawkins, Cath Bain, Brian Corbett, David Scott and Anna Oliver, BDMLR observers Donald Mitchell and Laura Shirra for such a successful rescue. Many thanks also to light aircraft pilot Graham Mountford for flying new rescue kit up to Scotland and BDMLR volunteer Carol MacArthur who collected it from Inverness.
Also to Scottish Sea Farms for their support and the supply of boats and crew.
BDMLR continues to fundraise to cover the cost of disentanglement equipment and operations. If you would like to donate, please go to www.justgiving.com/bdmlr
BDMLR Scottish Director
Editors: For high resolution pictures please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some links to footage taken by Noel Hawkins on the rescue:
Heading out: https://youtu.be/3u2-e0qlgMc
First contact: https://youtu.be/bUjeJriOHBM
Whale breaching, first contact: https://youtu.be/nce_7aDj27A
Using poles: https://youtu.be/VTg-9gBhP5Q
Freeing head (good clip): https://youtu.be/pjOD8VJBsPk
Being sprayed: https://youtu.be/utrnKBteRRM