Image: Jamie Edwards

On a calm Thursday morning in Port Elizabeth, the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), both members of the South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN), carried out the brave and selfless rescue of a juvenile humpback whale that had become ensnared in fishing line.
On 6 July 2017, Meredith Thornton of Dyer Island Conservation Trust reported that she had seen a humpback whale, roughly 8.5-9m in size, swimming about 1.6km out to sea, entangled in fishing line.
The SAWDN sprang into action, bringing together volunteers and professionals who crewed two rescue boats, Eikos Rescue IV and Spirit of Surfski 4. Two SAWDN members from the DEA, Deon Kotze and Steven McCue, who were attending the South African Marine Science Symposium, agreed to assist in the rescue mission. Soon, Ian Gray, Marizaan Booysen, Andre Aggenbach, Alan Singman, Deon Kotze and Jamie Edwards were aboard the Eikos Rescuer IV, ready to launch from the Port Elizabeth Harbour, with Mike Wilson, Kevin Warren and Stephen McGue, on Spirit of Surfski 4, awaiting launch from the beach at Willows.
Mission Impossible
There was only a light breeze in the morning, which later dropped to a dead calm. This was fortuitous for the courageous rescuers, as they had a long and difficult task ahead of them. The two rescue teams joined up, searching for over an hour before finding the imperilled whale. Yellow Rock Lobster rope, attached to a yellow buoy, was wrapped around the whale’s body. Starting from the left flipper, the rope went over the body, between the blowhole and dorsal fin, through the mouth and exited out of the left-hand side of the mouth. It was wrapped around the whale’s caudal penduncle three times, just in front of the flukes, and trailed behind the poor creature for approximately 10m. The rope had damaged the skin around the caudal penduncle and the buoy was being towed next to the whale, just behind the dorsal fin.
The rescuers first attached a working line to the trailing line of the whale and attempted to attach two kegging buoys to the line, in order to slow the whale down. Unfortunately, the kegging buoys twice became caught between the pontoon and outboard motor, breaking the working line.
A new working line then had to be attached to the bunch of rope hanging from the buoy, with another kegging buoy. Spirit of Surfski 4 acted as extra drag to slow the mammal down. However, this was a powerful, wild animal, swimming at upwards of three knots; these efforts did not succeed in slowing him down enough to allow the disentanglement to take place. Therefore, a heavier rope was attached to the trailing entanglement rope and Eikos Rescuer IV was used as an additional keg. With the whale thus slowed, the disentanglement became possible.
The teams went to work and made three cuts: the first was on the rope going over the body, quite low on the left; the second was on the rope between the buoy and the caudal penduncle; and the third was made in the rope wrapped around the caudal penduncle itself. The last cut severed the attachment between the whale and the rescue teams and, as the whale was now swimming at speed, the teams could not continue with the operation. So after over three and a half hours of noble and tiring work, the teams headed back to Port Elizabeth Harbour.
While the team acknowledged that it was a challenging disentanglement, due to the young whale’s obstinacy in not slowing down and the technical difficulties with the kegging buoys, they were all of the opinion that the remaining line that was not cut off in time would be shed by the whale. This means that these individuals and their commitment to conservation saved the life of this juvenile humpback.
Marine life entanglement is an issue that is steadily worsening, with a recent report estimating that 308 000 whales and dolphins are dying every year due to entanglement in fishing tackle alone. The deaths caused by entanglement in marine debris are not included in this figure. These animals face slow deaths because entanglement leads to drowning, lacerations, infections or starvation. However, the true impact of entanglement is not fully understood, as some whales are able to free themselves, many entanglements are never witnessed and perhaps only one in 10 is reported. It is also important to note that it is not only whales and dolphins that become entangled; it is all marine life.
It is essential that we are aware of the impact that we have on our immediate environment and the ocean. It is imperative that trawlers and other fishing vessels do not dispose of their old lines and nets in the ocean, but rather bring them back to shore and discard them in a proper manner.
Additionally, all beachgoers and divers must remember to dispose of their rubbish properly. It is also vital that owners of marinas and boats adhere to the laws and rules applicable to them. A message can also be sent by the population at large, by their choosing to support only environmentally-conscious marinas. By working together and being aware of how we treat our oceans, we can help to decrease and eventually stop the tragedy of marine life entanglements.