It’s whale watching season again. Already, there have been several sightings near the coast but there have also been four whale entanglements reported in the last couple of weeks.
Paul Cottrell, the Marine Mammal Coordinator of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), leads all of the large whale disentanglement operations along the Pacific coast.
“I do all the cutting just because it’s such a specialized thing and it’s so dangerous,” he said. “There are very few people who have the experience and the training to do that. For safety reasons, I’m the guy that usually assesses the situation and makes the decision on what gets cut and where.”
The DFO gets 10 to 20 whale entanglement reports a year, so these numbers are irregular. Multiple incidents have never happened over a one week period.
On June 21, the DFO received a phone call about a large entangled humpback whale near Powell River, just off the coast of B.C. The recreational boaters who sighted the whale called the hotline right away.
“They were able to just keep an eye out until dark which was great,” said Cottrell. “So I flew out there with all my gear and then met up with the fishing officers, the Coast Guard and staff up there by Powell River.”
After arriving and assessing the situation they realized this animal must have been anchored for several hours.
“With it being wrapped up and anchored for 24 hours, there were severe lacerations from the rope on the dorsal side of the animal. The tail had significant wounds from the rope that were cutting into the tail. There are definite injuries on the animal but they’re not life threatening.”
They began the exhausting process of removing all the rope, working their way from the head to the back, making sure the animal wouldn’t escape with the gear still attached.
Fortunately, most of the gear that is found on these animals does not originate from Canada. It usually comes from the whales’ migratory movements, which means the equipment comes from the coasts off the United States and Asia.
The routine for these rescues is a long and strenuous process, but the initial sighting is the most important part.
“We get into contact with the person with their eye on the whale. We encourage them to stay back but… to keep an eye on the whale until we arrive,” he added. “That makes the success rate go much higher.”
“You have to be very careful with it and really take your time with these disentanglement because these animals, humpbacks for example, can be 45 to 50 feet in length and 45 to 50 tons. Those animals are extremely powerful even if they are exhausted from all the gear they’re carrying.”
During this busy week for whale rescues, three out of the four reported entanglements were successful. Six have been reported this year to date, including three whales that could not be located.
The three successful rescues last week were all reported by members of the public who kept a close watch on the troubled mammals. He emphasizes the importance of the DFO being notified quickly so that a response team can be deployed as soon as possible to reduce the likelihood that the whale swims to another area and cannot be located.
If you see an entangled, distressed on injured animal, you are asked to call the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network at 1-800-465-4336 or the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network at 1-800-ISAWONE.
The rescuers never get in the water with the animal for safety reasons. To identify the problem and come up with a solution, they use a GoPro camera to see where to cut the lines.
Here is some footage from the GoPro of the recent entanglement in Powell River: