Around midday on Wednesday 22nd March, a fisherman found a humpback whale entangled in his pot ropes off Blackpool Beach near Dartmouth, South Devon. He contacted Solent Coastguard who immediately contacted the emergency hotline at British Divers Marine Life Rescue.
Our local Marine Mammal Medics were mobilised to the scene. The local Coastguard team from Dartmouth attended as well, along with the RNLI’s Inshore Rescue Boat (IRB) in support and to help monitor the situation while the BDMLR team gathered and prepared for a rescue attempt. Devon Area Coordinator Dave McDonald and Assistant Area Coordinator Tim Coleman went out on the IRB to make an initial assessment of the whale.
The whale appeared to have a single rope line caught around its tail, but the tail was well below the water’s surface which made seeing and reaching it difficult. The weight of the gear was holding the whale in place and it had so far remained near the surface, coming up to breathe frequently.
Team members Dave Jarvis, Alison Shearer, Annabelle Lowe, Josie McDonald and Cath Nay stayed on the beach as the onshore support team, coordinating with BDMLR Head Office and dealing with people and the media who had started to arrive. Dan Jarvis was put aboard the fishing boat with spare disentanglement equipment, while Dave and Tim went with Chris Lowe on the IRB to attempt a close approach to try to disentangle the whale.
After a few tries, it became clear the whale was holding its tail so low there was no chance the IRB team could do anything unless it could be raised. Dave McDonald came aboard the fishing boat and a new plan was made to haul the gear aboard to get the tail up so the IRB could try again. The whale appeared tired, but it was still able to muster enough energy on the first hauling attempt to dive and take the buoys underwater with it, meaning it was now completely lost to sight.
The whale eventually resurfaced close to the fishing boat much to everyone’s relief, and hauling efforts started again, yet it was still too strong and as soon as it started to move it would take the haul rope and buoys back overboard. Regrouping, it was obvious more people were needed to help haul and the two boats now switched roles, with the fishing boat now the primary rescue vessel and the IRB acting as safety support. Chris and Tim came aboard with a member of the RNLI crew, while their all-weather lifeboat stationed at Salcombe was also launched to help. After a few more hauling attempts the 45ft, 20 tonne whale was brought above the surface and the team were just inches away from being able to cut the rope free from the tail, but it moved away again.
Finally, after more than two hours, the tug of war succeeded, the twisted part of the rope around the whale’s tail was finally cut, and the whale disappeared briefly. Seconds later it surfaced some distance away, and continued to move slightly inshore and along the coast towards the Salcombe direction until it was lost to sight.
BDMLR would like to thank our Marine Mammal Medics who were involved in this incident both on site and on the phone (especially Julia Cable); the RNLI crews of Dartmouth and Salcombe; and the Dartmouth Coastguard team who are also volunteers. We would also like to say a very special thank you to the fishermen who did absolutely the right thing in reporting the incident, but also stayed out all day to assist and allowed the use of their vessel for the rescue.
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