Campobello – The Campobello Whale Rescue Team freed a humpback whale calf off the coast of Brier Island in Nova Scotia Saturday – their first rescue since the death of team member Joe Howlett in July of last year.
The entangled calf was spotted by Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises while out on a whale watching tour. Shelley Lonergan, research coordinator with Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises, called the Marine Animal Response Society who in turn called the rescue team headed by Mackie Greene.
It is about 50 nautical miles from Campobello to the site of the entanglement but weather conditions were really good and it took the team about an hour and 20 minutes to get there.
The whale watching boat stood by for a while then the Coast Guard cutter “Westport” took over and kept track of the whale while the team was en route.
When they arrived, the crew on the “Westport” had taken some photos so the team got on board the cutter, looked over the photos and developed a plan to free the calf as well as consulting with whale disentanglement expert Wayne Ledwell in Newfoundland. The new protocol for whale rescues requires that the team consult with another expert, discuss their plan and review safety procedures.
The calf had two wraps of blue rope around its head and through its mouth when the team arrived, said Greene, and it was accompanied by its mother, whose name is Pierce.
“There were a few times when the calf would come up to the rescue boat and the mother would put her nose against his nose and push him. We had to go really slow and easy and take our time.
“We had to build up a trust with the mother. The last thing we wanted to do was get her mad and, for a while, there was another whale there as well but he took off after a while. Everything was really slow.
“The calf had two wraps around its head and through its mouth. We didn’t know if it was traps or an anchor.
“When we first got there, they were staying on the surface most of the time and the calf was straining to get his head up. I think, once he got tired out, there was a good possibility the calf would have drowned.”
After several attempts, rescuers were able to use a knife attached to a pole and cut one of the lines and that released the weight from the calf’s head.
“It was good to cut the ropes off because he was so young. We had to take our time and be really cautious with the mother there and even put an extra section on the pole to reach over her.
“No matter what we did, she would pop up between us but, after a while, she got used to us and let her guard down. It took about an hour to get the first cut which released the heft then they were able to start swimming around a bit more which made it more difficult.”
Greene said they then used a cutting grapple with knife blades to get the rest of the rope off the calf although he said there might still be a piece through the baleen but, hopefully, the whale will expel this and it won’t interfere with its eating.
“It was really good. Last summer I don’t think I could have done a disentanglement. Emotionally, I wasn’t ready after Joe’s death. It was hard to go whale watching for a while.
“Last fall we had a report of an entangled whale and I did feel ready to do it again but we didn’t get the chance to go with this new protocol. We have been ready since early spring. I felt like Joe was there smiling down on us all the time.”
Dr. Moe Brown, who has been doing right whale research for more than three decades, and is a member of the team, wasn’t with them Saturday because she was playing in the Joe Howlett Memorial Golf Tournament.
Greene said the other members of the team had planned to join her at the golf course later for the barbecue. Howlett died during the rescue of a North Atlantic Right Whale July 10, 2017.
“But I think it was fitting that we were out disentangling a whale. It worked out great and Joe would have been bouncing up and down. It was almost like he was still there.
“I didn’t know how I would react but it was just like always, although we will never be able to replace Joe. We still have a good team and we have expanded quite a bit.”
Greene said there is also a new team in Nova Scotia which the Campobello team have been training. He said the Campobello team is now doing the whole of the Maritimes except Newfoundland, and is receiving funding from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to expand.
This government had put a lot of support towards the whales, said Greene, although he doesn’t agree with the fishery closures because he feels fishermen in the Bay of Fundy have worked well around whales.
“I wish they had done something else besides closures, but it has brought it to the forefront. We have a lot of smart fishermen and most of our gear is whale safe.”