Whale success story: Hangglide’s rescue in the Bay of Fundy

A CWRT rescue worker frees Hangglide, a nine-year-old humpback whale, in the Bay of Fundy. © CWRT/IFAWThe call came in on Monday night, June 10, 2014.

A whale watching ship out of Maine had stumbled on a humpback tangled up in lobster traps.

He was fifty miles offshore, and he needed our help.

The crew at the Campobello Whale Rescue Team (CWRT) are all experienced fishermen. But being so far from shore meant that the three of us in our little zodiac would definitely need some backup to ensure our own safety.

Thankfully, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans obliged, and sent out two of their own vessels to accompany us. Soon we were racing across the Bay of Fundy, hoping to find this whale and free him.

Not all whale stories end happily. Read about Iceland’s recent resumption of fin whaling.

It may seem strange to say it, but the entangled whale actually had luck in his favour.

When we headed out on Tuesday, we had no idea whether we would be able to locate him.

The Bay of Fundy is enormous, and even when a whale is weighed down with fishing gear, he can cover a lot of distance. But Hangglide — the name he’s been given by the Centre for Coastal Studies — was actually anchored in place.

This meant that we found him in the same spot that the whale watching ship had seen him the day before.

The other bit of luck for Hangglide was that the weather was gorgeous. If a spring storm had been tearing through the Bay of Fundy, he surely would have drowned before we could make it to him.

When we located the 9-year-old humpback, it was clear he was in distress.

He seemed sluggish, and there was a trumpeting when he blew out.

Soon we started the slow dance that is whale disentanglement. First off, we had to “keg” the whale, which means tying something to him to slow him down and allow ourselves to inch closer to him. In this case we actually used our zodiac to keg Hangglide.

The term “keg” comes from the buoyant keg that used to be attached to a whaler’s harpoon. It’s more than a bit ironic that we actually use some of the same techniques to rescue whales that whalers used to slaughter them. 

Once we had Hangglide attached to our boat, it took us four hours to slowly inch close enough to him to start to cut the lobster trawls off of his body. We actually have to get with a few short feet of a whale’s tail in order to do this work.

One swipe of that tail could mean serious injury or even death for a member of our crew.

When I first started doing this work, all I had to use was a short knife attached to the end of a two by four. Now, thanks in large part to the financial assistance we receive from IFAW, we have some specialized gear for the job — 10 foot carbon fibre rods with small, curved knives at the end, perfect for cutting thick fishing gear.

Once we had finally cut all of the rigging off of Hangglide, it seemed as if he was almost grateful.

He took a long, slow circle around our boat. When he blew, there was no distress in the sound, and he finally moved away with grace and power.

Untangling whales from a mess of fishing nets is never easy work. But my crew and I aren’t doing it because it’s easy.

We’re doing it because we respect these amazing animals.

--MG

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team is the only specialized cetacean rescue service operating in the Bay of Fundy. Since 2004, IFAW has been supporting the CWRT with operational funding, purchasing specialized gear, training opportunities, and boat upgrades. Made up entirely of local fishermen, the CWRT has successfully rescued dozens of right, humpback, and minke whales, as well as harbor porpoises.  

Visit our campaign page to learn more about IFAW efforts to protect whales around the world.

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Experts

Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Dr. Ralf (Perry) Sonntag, Country Director, Germany
Country Director, Germany
Isabel McCrea, Regional Director, Oceania
Regional Director, Oceania
IFAW Japan Representative
IFAW Japan Representative
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Whales