Successful Rescue Attempt on a Humpback Whale. 27 October 2004

Dr Gletwyn Rubidge and Mark Jackson freed a humpback whale that had become entangled in rope and buoys. This is the story:

The first time I conceived of the idea of freeing a whale was when I heard of the whale entangled in a net in Algoa Bay in Port Elizabeth in mid 2004. Lloyd Edwards had discovered the whale on one of his charter cruises. I contacted Lloyd of Raggy Charters and offered to help if the whale could be relocated. My intent was to swim stealthily up to the whale and cut off the ensnaring net. Lloyd was glad to have the offer of assistance and I was placed on standby while he was getting through the red tape of obtaining permission to attempt the rescue. Fanus Gerber had also agreed to be available. I knew that such a “front end” operation could expose one to the massive and maneuverable pectoral fins but it was a chance that would have to be taken. Unfortunately the whale was not relocated, or if it was we did not find out about it.

On the morning of 22 October the NSRI, SAP Divers, and Marine & Coastal Management all had a go at freeing an entangled humpback whale. One of the crew of the NSRI was injured by the fluke. Their rescue attempt was not successful except for the removal of a buoy and a piece of rope. The attempt was aborted as the whale was stressed and moving too shallow near rocks that could injure it. Mark and I never knew of this rescue attempt – we simply crossed paths with the poor whale the next morning while out for a spearfish about 2 km east of Noordhoek. I saw the whale in the distance and pointed it out to Mark. His good eyes noticed the buoys on the fluke. We headed off toward it to investigate. (We were now breaking the law by approaching closer than 300 m – an offence that can carry very heavy fines and apparently even allow one the privilege of “doing time”.) The whale – about 8 -10 long had two floats and a pile of rope tangled over its tail. As soon as I saw its predicament I started putting on my fins, turned to Mark and said “lets get closer”. My next comment as I got ready to drop into the water was, “I’m nervous” to which he replied “so am I!”. Feeling relieved that I was not the only nervous one and armed with a paring knife with a two inch-long blade I swam over to the whale and assessed the situation. There were three ropes hooked over the fluke and these disappeared into the tangled mess of rope that supporting two floats. These three ropes had to be severed to free the whale. I now sat at “the edge” – that somewhat familiar place where you have no experience to guide you and its time to do something new and potentially risky.

I took a deep breath of (more of attempt to build up courage than get air I believe) and set about gripping and cutting into the rope on the left side of the whales fluke. My nerves had disappeared as by now as I was concentrating on my task. The whale sensed the pressure as I began working at the 20 mm thick rope with ”Excalibur”. The whale shook its tail, I hung on but managed to continue cutting. Eventually I got through the rope – so far so good. The whole time I was hoping the whale would not dive and force me to hang on while cutting the rope. (It was about 20 m deep where we were.) Since I had no air supply, except that in my lungs, and I was exerting myself I would not be able to hold my breath too long. I would eventually have to let go if she sounded and then have to try again if the whale surfaced. Fortunately she stayed on the surface.

Next I moved to the right hand side of the fluke and got to work on the second of the three ropes. This time I was well over the fluke and beneath my legs was the mass of tangled rope. The mass of tangled rope was a concern to me in that while cutting the rope the whales movement could wrap it around my legs. Had I become entangled and the whale sounded things could have become more complex. The whale now shook more violently and at this time my spearfishing and waterskiing experience aided me in staying on the “bronco fluke”. (As teenagers my brothers and I used to hang on a ski rope behind a boat with no skis and see who could stay on the longest. The force on ones hands was extreme and the jet of water in the face prevented breathing and looking. Once on the plane it would be easier unless there was wind chopping up the water – choppy water = chopped idiot dragging behind). The increased tension on the ropes as the whale thrashed its fluke sped-up the cutting of the rope by keeping it taught. She made a bellowing sound during this stage. After what seemed an eternity I got through this rope. Delighted at getting through this second rope I determinedly snatched at the third one and got to work – the whale was calmer now and I got through this rope rather easily. I made a brief scan of the fluke to make sure all the rope was off and turned to face Mark on the boat and let out a “Whoo – hoo!” of delight at freeing the gentle giant(OK – maybe not that gentle).

I got on the boat that Mark constantly kept in close and with much effort we began dragging our prize of rope and buoys onto the small 4.3 m Triton “Stealth” boat. The free whale now approached us as we were pulled the rope and buoys up and came right under the boat. I was a bit concerned as she could easily capsize our little vessel. She was not aggressive – Mark reversed the boat back a bit and she stayed with us – I believe she was expressing gratitude for the help. We then triumphantly went off to continue our diving.

The whole process took less than five minutes and the whale was stressed to a minimal degree.

The factors that led to the rapid success are:

What I have learned from this rescue and other rescue attempts I have read about: