This report in from the week of July 26th, filed by our Austrailian office director Mick MCintyre.
On Tuesday of this week, we received a report of a Humpback whale in Vava’u, Tonga entangled in what appears to be fishing rope. The animal looks like it could have been entangled in the rope at least for a few months and this could have occurred in New Zealand.
As you can see by the pictures the animal is not in good condition. The whale is covered in what looks like pink algae, thousands of cyamid or "whale lice" which apparently breed rapidly when an animal’s immune system is compromised.
The worldwide entanglement network (including centre for coastal studies, Dave Mattila, Doug Cochrane etc.) have been talking over the email and opinions vary. But all agree that the animal is in a compromised state, judging by the amount of lice and the heavily embedded rope. Some are saying that the animal is unlikely to survive and hence any rescue operation will be futile and too dangerous to undertake. Others are more optimistic that if the rope is removed soon, there is the chance that the animal will survive. From what we can tell, the ropes are quite tightly wrapped and digging into the whale making it very difficult (and dangerous) for an untrained team to safely remove them. Hence there is wide spread agreement that any rescue attempt has to be led by a recognised expert in the field.
Vava’u is the prime spot for whale watching in not just Tonga, but the whole Pacific Island region. Many whale watch operators in Vava’u promote swim with tours which draws visitors from all over the world, specifically for this activity. And this is the time of year that people come to swim with the whales. Vava’u is also the place where we have our IFAW Marine Education Awareness Centre managed by Filipe.
The feeling in the community is that something should be done to rescue the whale and there was initial concern that someone may jump into the water in an attempt to cut the rope. Fortunately, Filipe has been swift to act and has been working with the Fisheries office and tourism authorities as well as operators, to making radio announcements to ensure that no-one attempts this dangerous operation.
IFAW Asia Pacific has been involved from the start and obviously having an IFAW staff member in Vava’u has been fantastic, Tania Duratovic (IFAW AP’s campaign officer and ER rep) has been coordinating IFAW’s offer of sending a team of experts (headed by Australia’s leading disentanglement guru, Doug Coughran) to go to Vava’u. Filipe has been working with Tongan Fisheries and there is sign off on IFAW coordinating a rescue team if appropriate.
However, things are on hold until we get more regular sightings of the animal . Some of the global experts believe that since we have not seen the whale since Tuesday, it is very unlikely to be seen again in a location that we will have accessibility in terms of launching a rescue. From the photographs, there doesn’t seem to be any safe point on the whale to deploy a control line so a structured safe (and humane) disentanglement or even a single cut can be made.
Filipe went out on the water yesterday with a Fisheries officer and did not find the whale. And so far today (and it is 4.30pm in Tonga) there have been no reports. However, Filipe will continue to work on the ground to locate the whale. Whale watch operators and fisherman have been told to radio in or phone the IFAW office if they sight the whale.
Meanwhile Tania is progressing with coordinating a disentanglement team from Australia if that opportunity arises, this includes talking with the various govt. departments that these experts come from.
Once again, this highlights the threats facing marine mammals around the globe and also the need for capacity training and equipment in the Pacific Island region. It also highlights how IFAW is the appropriate organisation to be coordinating such a response because we have the ability to act swiftly and are not bound by bureaucratic red tape (that we are witnessing inside the various Govt departments).
I will send more updates when new information comes to hand.