Daring Right Whale Disentanglement Attempt in the Bay of Fundy!
The International Fund for Animal Welfare's Barb Cartwright, Canada Campaigns Manager, filed this report from the Bay of Fundy earlier today...
And not just any whale—the most endangered whale in the world—a North Atlantic right whale.
I am one of the IFAW staff meeting with the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, a unique and highly skilled team of local fishermen dedicated to the conservation of right whales, in the basement of the local church, when the call comes and the team springs into action.
We head out into the Bay of Fundy which fortunately is smooth and glassy—unexpected in this environment with the highest tides in the world. The sun is bright and warm against the bracing wind caused by the speeding zodiac.
The entangled whale is a female and was last seen in March 2007 off the east coast of the USA during an aerial survey. She was entangled then but evaded rescuers and disappeared until today when she surfaced again in the Bay of Fundy. She was identified by whale researchers from the New England Aquarium on the research vessel Nereid (SP). They reported it and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans dispatched the CCWRT to disentangle her.
“She’s round behind Grand Manann Island and has two wraps” Mackie Green, the leader of the team shouts back to me as he grabs his float suit and gear. “It’ll take us about an hour to get there so we better get going”. Okay—I pull on my float suit, take a seat on the old coast guard vessel re-tooled for its new job.
The ride across the bay is spectacular—whales, seabirds and porpoises. Joe Howlett, perches on the bow as we get closer to the location scanning the horizon for the whale in question. The team is calm, pensive and full of anticipation. This is the first entanglement of a right whale this season and their job is critical to the survival of the species with less then 350 individuals—it’s a big weight on these very competent shoulders. The CWRT have been doing this for 5 years now, Mackie Green is the only Level Four responder in the Bay and who better to know how to work with fishing gear quickly then fishermen themselves—it’s a perfect combination.
When we pull up along side the Nereid, CWRT drop me off and get the details from the researchers. “She went down 9 minutes ago and should be back up soon. She has two wraps and one on the flipper. We have been tracking her no problem—glad you got here so fast.” the captain tells them. No sooner had I settled on the stand by boat when she surfaced again.
Mackie drives the team over to assess her—how bad was the entanglement, where was she wrapped, what tools would be useful and what would the approach be. During that assessment the skilled team saw an opportunity to remove a wrap and they took it.
With lightening fast reactions, Joe grabs his whale release tool—a long pole with a sharp knife at its tip—and in a remarkably fluid movement thrusts it towards the whale. With amazingly precise movements he inserts the knife between the flesh of the whale and the entangled rope and deftly slices.
“We got it! We got one!” Everyone on the stand by boat rejoiced, marveling at the speed and skill with which the CWRT operated. The whale dives and we regroup to debrief and wait until she surfaces again. It was a spectacular effort and there is much excitement that we can finish the job without causing undue stress to the whale.
There are so many whales in the area and the researchers keep a keen eye on every whale that surfaces in view. It is a privilege to watch the team work and I am struck by their bravery and professionalism. The air is alive with the sounds of whale breath forced through their blow holes as they break the water surface for a gulp of air. It is busy day for right whales in the area.
She surfaced twice more but the team can’t get a good approach. Right whales are notoriously difficult to disentangle as they often become elusive after the first approach—“they are on to us” Mackie explains, “they know where we are all the time but we don’t know where they are”.
This is a big place and the boats scan the horizon and every surfacing whale for hours, waiting for her to return. After about three hours we see her again and the CWRT boat makes a bee line for her but one of their engines quit and she can’t get up the speed. Danny Parker, the third team member, works furiously on the engine, trying to get her to run again—but she won’t even turn over. He remains calm, a crucial skill in high stress and dangerous situations like there.
The whale dives again by the time they get into position. You can feel the disappointment in the heart of every team member—they take their work very seriously and as we wait for her to resurface the anticipation is palatable. Unfortunately we never see her again. We sit, eyes in all directions under the relentless sun, waiting for the last possible moment before the team is forced to call off the effort. We need to get ashore before the sun goes down especially with a defunct motor —the trip home will be twice as long as the trip out.
The team consoles each other with the fact that getting one of the ropes off her will give her more breathing space, “make her more comfortable” Joes says. “But we got to get the second rope” Mackie laments while Danny looks to the future “we can come look for her tomorrow —she made it this far and we helped her today—we’ll help her tomorrow too”. They all agree and I sit in awe of what they have accomplished and am relieved for right whales that Mackie, Joe and Danny live in the Bay of Fundy and will be out there tomorrow.
This is IFAW’s fourth visit to the Island since IFAW began supporting the Campobello Whale Rescue Team to do whale disentanglements in the Bay of Fundy.
The team went out again on today but so far have been unable to locate the whale—a known breeder who has had two calves already. They will keep searching and I hope to bring good news soon.