It is estimated that over 300,000 cetaceans worldwide die each year as a result of entanglement in lost or active fishing gear. The sadness of this was brought home to all of us this week with reports of encountering a badly entangled whale, on the Silver Bank, seventy miles north of the Dominican Republic. Captain Gene’s report is below and we’ll share any updates on the situation as they arise.
Conscious Breath Adventures staff are currently on the Silver Bank in the Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals of the Dominican Republic where they operate under permit from the government of the Dominican Republic to offer soft in-water encounters with humpback whales. On Sunday February 12th, the first day of week three of the ten-week season, staff encountered, and made efforts to help, a badly entangled humpback whale. This report was received via satellite e-mail from the vessel, the M/V SunDancer II. Further information and photos will be available on February 17th when the vessel returns to port and internet access is available. Please contact Cloe Waterfield with any questions prior to that time.
Report submitted by Captain Gene Flipse, 2-12-12:
“On the afternoon of February 12, 2012 operators on the Silver Bank worked together in an attempt to help a badly entangled humpback whale that was discovered during the first afternoon of their scheduled tours. Jeff Pantukhoff and Gene Flipse of Conscious Breath Adventures and Tom Conlin of Aquatic Adventures and his staff, who first observed the whale, made a coordinated effort to render aid.
By the time Jeff Pantukhoff arrived more than an hour after initial contact and preliminary aid from Tom Conlin and staff, who removed significant portions of the entanglement, the adult male whale still had an extensive length of netting that was trailing from the whale’s mouth on both sides of its body. On the left side the line ran up and across the back in front of the dorsal with a deep, ingrown wound, and continued trailing down the right side. The line coming out the right side of the mouth angled sharply downward under the right pectoral fin and trailed back from there. Tom Conlin re-entered the water and swam up the line with a “pony” scuba cylinder and removed approximately 90′ of line. Jeff Pantukhoff entered just after, assessed the situation and secured the remaining line to try to keep it clear of the whale. Determining the need for more assistance, additional boats provided support in the form of manpower and scuba equipment. By the time Gene Flipse entered the water about 45 minutes later, there was still about 50′ of polypropylene line and monofilament net remaining.
The whale was in very poor condition, with deep line cuts in the corners of the mouth and across the back, open sores, visibly emaciated and with very widespread infestation of whale lice on deteriorated skin. It was swimming freely when first sighted by Tom Conlin but was very weak and eventually tired and afterward did not evade approach.
Using knives and a combination of freediving and scuba equipment, over the course of more than two more hours the team worked to remove the line as completely as possible. The initial hope was that through a combination of maneuvers the swimmers might be able to unwrap the line in one piece to free the whale completely, but the effort was complicated by the repeated twisting and turning of the whale as it responded to pressure on the remaining lines, often making matters worse
There were moments where the line was completely free except for the length running through the mouth. With the swimmers securing the line to try to prevent re-entanglement, they attempted to work into a position that would free the line if the whale opened its mouth. Unfortunately the whale never did open its mouth, often twisted and re-entangled, and it was not possible to remove that critical part of the entanglement.
Eventually the decision was made that the best that could be done was to cut the remaining line as close to the whale’s mouth as possible to eliminate the chance of the line becoming entangled in the reef. Gene Flipse was able to approach very closely and cut the line, leaving approximately a foot of line remaining outside the mouth on either side. An indeterminate length of lines, net and likely floats as well remained in the mouth. The total intervention lasted approximately four hours.
From the emaciated appearance of the whale and its wounds, it seems likely that the whale had been entangled for a period of months, most likely becoming entangled in its feeding grounds in higher latitudes, and made the southern migration while entangled. From observations of the fishing gear, Gene Flipse estimates that the net was used for a near-coastal fishery in relatively shallow waters, based on the depth of the net and weight of construction.
After the team’s in-water efforts concluded Gene Flipse and members of the Aquatic Adventures team were able to capture underwater images and video of the whale, including an underwater fluke identification photo taken by Gene Flipse that shows a ventral surface almost completely black with a few small spots of white on the right lobe. Photos will be made available to interested parties when the team returns to port.
In spite of the improvement in circumstances for the whale, with well over 150′ of line and net removed, given the overall condition of the whale, the line remaining in his mouth and extended distance to potential feeding grounds, it is very unlikely that the whale will have the energy reserves to survive the trauma. The best the team could do was to relieve most of the stress and help to make the whale more comfortable. After the team exited the water, with approaching poor weather and darkness, they observed the whale for another half hour as it rested peacefully and that is where the whale was last seen. All operators will be watching carefully for and report any additional sightings in the days and weeks to come.”
Please visit the following worldwide organizations for more information on the problem of entanglement, research underway and contact information to report any sighting of an entangled marine mammal (with thanks to Jooke Robbins, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies):
The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, NOAA’s Large Whale Disentanglement Program, Whale Release and Strandings – Newfoundland and Labrador, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities – Whale and Dolphin Rescue Hotline, South African Whale Disentanglement Network.