Tales from the bay: Sea Rescue volunteers disentangle trapped whale

Tales from the bay by Raggy Charters – is this the fastest ever whale disentanglement?

As we were leaving harbour port last week with some tourists aboard for a whale, dolphin and penguin island cruise in the Addo Elephant National Park marine protected area, we received a radio call from Gareth Right, the skipper of the oyster boat.  He informed us that there was a humpback whale attached to a buoy and length of rope right next to the tanker berth. The NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) had been alerted and Gareth was standing by to keep an eye on its movements. We also stood by, and took some photos.

NSRI had been notified at 09:18 and launched by 10:00 – what a great reaction time! The whale was a sub-adult humpback and, luckily, was in a pretty relaxed mood. The two NSRI vessels quickly surveyed the entanglement and attached a working line to the whale. There was a single wrap of rope around the caudal peduncle (the narrow region of the body of a fish or cetacean immediately in front of the caudal fin). The NSRI volunteers moved in and made cuts in the rope with a specially adapted cutting knife attached to a long pole. Within minutes the rope had been cut and the whale was free.

The whale swam off slowly. The NSRI tried to herd the animal out of the harbour, but it would not leave. It then took up residence between the tanker and the quayside. On inspection of the area at 5pm, there was no sign of the whale, which suggests that it must have ventured out to sea again. Another whale had been spotted just outside port, so maybe they were reunited.

The buoy was clearly marked with the letters Portia 1, which is one of the rock lobster vessels. They deploy the “crayfish” traps about 50km south of Cape Recife. This is the area where the water depth drops from 150m to 1,5km and forms the continental shelf. The line of joined traps is marked with a 20mm nylon rope attached to a buoy. They are left here for a few days and then retrieved. When whales see these lines, they scratch themselves, get a fright and role on the lines and become entangled, facing a slow and agonising death. How much longer must we tolerate this?

Raggy Charters is busy with a project to force the fishing industry to use mitigating measures in order to prevent entanglements from occurring. We have engaged with the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Barbara Creecy, and await a meeting with her office. In Australia, the United States, and Canada, acoustic releases, which prevent entanglements, have been used very effectively. Simply put, the lines marking the traps are coiled into a metal “barrel” with the buoy fixed in place on the sea bottom. When the vessel wants to retrieve the traps, an acoustic signal is given which releases the buoy and rope to the surface. By using this method, cetaceans cannot become entangled. This equipment is available but costly. We will urge the Minister to make this equipment compulsory for the industry. She has already made the octopus fishery use mitigating measurers and there have been no further entanglements. We will keep you up to date with our endeavors to meet up with the minister.