IFAW leads team to rescue entangled whale in Iceland

Weeks ago, Reykjavík whale watching companies had sighted a badly entangled humpback during their daily tours in Faxaflói Bay, the most popular whale watching destination in Europe.

Crews and passengers were worried for the injured and struggling animal’s survival.

The Icelandic Coast Guard was able to cut loose some of the nets and ropes, but the animal was so entangled that to save it from suffering and ultimately a grisly death would require specialist tools and training.

Such a rescue operation had never before been carried out before in this part of the world.

And time was running out.

The directors of three local whale watching companies in Reykjavík and the representative of Icewhale (The Icelandic Whale Watching Association), all of whom had been partners with the International Fund for Animal Welfare for the last 12 years, met me and Brian Sharp, an IFAW marine mammal rescue expert from the United States to discuss how to conduct such a complicated and dangerous rescue. The Marine Research Institute and Environment Ministry expressed their support for the mission.

From an Elding whale watch boat, a group of us, including representatives from British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and MAST (The Food & Health Agency) searched four hours for the whale in rainy conditions.

When we finally spotted it, Brian boarded a small rubber boat with two members of BDMLR to get closer and attach a small red buoy to the entangling gear so we could track the whale wherever it went. The line would allow the team to pull their small boat up behind the whale to attempt to disentangle it.

We sighted a deep scar around the tail, created by tightly wrapped thin layers of net and line, and attached a couple of other buoys forcing the animal to surface for longer periods of time.

Due to the difficulty of the task and the evasiveness of the whale the mission could not be completed before dark. In order to find the whale the next day a satellite tag was attached to the entangling gear that would allow the team to track the whale during the night.

The next morning the team met at daybreak.

The satellite tag did its job and the team was able to relocate the whale quickly, which was essential with worsening weather forecasted for later in the day.

The team immediately started re-attaching buoys in efforts to slow the whale and bring it to the surface so it could be disentangled. It took nearly four more hours but the team was eventually able to make the cuts that should allow the whale to shed the rest of the gear. Due to the severity of the entanglement and the depth of the wounds, the whale is still carrying lines embedded in its skin, but we expect the wounds to expel the lines over time.

The team is hopeful that the whale will be able to resume feeding and begin the healing process.

This dramatic rescue is the latest demonstration of IFAW’s long-term commitment to the welfare of whales surrounding Iceland and our belief in positive partnerships. Media representatives met our team at the dock as we returned and broadcast, print and online coverage of the story has been very favourable. 

This first-ever collaboration among government officials, the private sector, and international disentanglement experts highlighted both strengths and weaknesses in Iceland when it comes to such a rescue.

A whale has been saved, but the work of improving regulations and disentangling roles and responsibilities for rescuing marine mammals in Iceland lies ahead.

IFAW looks forward to lending a hand with that urgent task as well.


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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation