Young right whale disentangled from fishing gear in Canada’s Bay of Fundy

In the middle of the Bay of Fundy, in the deep water of the Grand Manan Basin about 50 km southeast of Campobello Island, a six-year-old male endangered right whale we eventually named FDR was wrapped in many lines of rope.

They constricted his head, body and both flippers, with a couple of buoys strung to the gear as well. This kind of entanglement makes it very difficult for the whale to dive or even to swim – which it needs to do in order to feed himself.

Fellow fisherman Joe Howlett and I, both of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, first tried to establish a control line, which is a line attached to the entangling gear, and additional floats to keep track of the whale. That’s the same process as the old whalers used, called kegging— only now we’re actually using it to slow the whale to disentangle it, not hunt it.

This whale was in serious trouble. 

As we approached the whale, he didn’t make much effort to swim away, as if he knew rescuers were there to help. PHOTO: © Jerry Conway

Unlike so many other right whales I’ve helped rescue, however, the whale was not constantly swimming and diving, which complicates the disentanglement response even more. Instead this whale stayed on the surface, so we came up alongside several times reaching over with a specialized hook-shaped knife attached to a long, carbon fiber pole to try to cut away the ropes. On our approaches, we had to reach down into the water, fighting the current with the pole knife.

The goal: to just keep cutting the lines. We lost count after 10 cuts.

Five hours passed. The whale was exhausted, we were exhausted. 

But we finally made the final cut to free the gear and all of us on board (including the Canadian Whale Institute’s Moe Brown and Jerry Conway) celebrated with a cheer.

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team, after five hours of work cutting lines around a five-year-old right whale named FDR, eventually freed the animal. PHOTO: © New England Aquarium

While we were on the water, our colleagues from the New England Aquarium were standing by keeping track of the whale. They matched the whale against the right whale database (whale scientists have put this together so they can distinguish each individual whale based on the markings on their heads), and found out he was a six-year-old male, known to whale researchers by its assigned identification number, #4057. 

We had noticed that he was a little banged up — he had already been entangled and disentangled once before off the coast of Georgia in 2014.

We decided to name him FDR, after US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Campobello Island was President Roosevelt’s summer home, and he also spent time down in Georgia receiving therapy after he contracted polio. Since both President Roosevelt and this young whale had faced some serious challenges in their lives and shared these two separate destinations, we thought FDR was a great fit.

Now FDR is swimming freely in the waters of the North Atlantic, hopefully gobbling plankton, gaining strength, and staying away from fishing gear!

--MG

IFAW provides funding for the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, which is made up of volunteer fishermen and biologists from tiny Campobello Island in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada.

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