A Whale of a Tale: No Limits

I’ve been thinking about the imagined limits we often place on ourselves; based on fear of the unknown or fear of failure. The story you are about to read is an example of what can occur is we expand our limits and try something new…

On the last day of 2011, my husband chose to leave his comfort zone and reached into the unknown and, with help of a few others, saved the lives of 2 humpback whales. What follows is his story.

On December 31, 2011 the sailing vessel Wendaway was motoring southwest from Isle Isabella toward the village of San Blas on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. We were hoping to see some whales. There were three of us aboard, The owner of the vessel, Mark, Mary; a licensed captain and myself. I was at the helm. We spotted some spouting and splashing about a mile North of our position. We were pretty sure we were seeing a whale, but as we watched, we noticed that there was a bright yellow colored object visible in the vicinity of the splashing and spouting. Curious, we decided to alter our course toward the activity. As we approached we were sickened by what we saw.

A mother humpback whale and her calf were ensnared in a huge drift net. The yellow object we had seen in the distance was actually a plastic 10-liter fuel can that had been tied to the drift net as a marker and a float. The whales were bound tightly together and were festooned with yellow rope, red floats and an aqua colored net. They were swimming northward at about 5 knots. We motored along next to them on a parallel course stationed about 50 meters away.

While we were on station we discussed whether we thought there was anything we could do to help them get free from the net. We could see even from a distance that they were in serious trouble. The net covered them tightly from their snouts to behind their dorsal fins. It was apparent to us that if the nets were not removed they would eventually die. They could not swim freely nor could they open their mouths to feed.

Mark got on the radio and called Securite’ stating the problem to all who could hear us and asked for advice. One boat suggested that we put our dinghy in the water and that we approach the whales to get a better look. Another boat had a marine mammal specialist aboard who suggested we put a strong swimmer in the water and try to cut them free. This specialist had some experience with freeing porpoises from nets but not humpback whales. The specialist also suggested that we speak soothing words to the whales as we drew near letting them know that we meant them no harm and that we were there to help them.

We had a brief crew meeting to discuss the possibility of attempting a rescue and to decide whether we should attempt a rescue. We discussed the method we would use and the dangers associated with making the attempt. We agreed unanimously that these magnificent animals were in mortal distress and that we could not, nor would we leave without attempting to free them.

We quickly developed a plan. Mark would stay on the boat and keep the boat in position near the whales. He would maintain communication with the cruising fleet and with us in the dinghy. Mark, as skipper of the vessel, maintained his right to call off the attempt if, in his sole opinion, it seemed too dangerous for the rescue attempt to go forward. Mary volunteered to be responsible for handling the dinghy and I had the job of cutting the net. We donned our PFD’s and loaded the dinghy with the ditch bag, the hand held VHF and three folding knives.

We lowered the dinghy into the water and prepared to shove off. Before we moved off, Mark told us that he thought we should approach the whales from the mother’s side just in case she panicked and charged us in an attempt to protect the baby. We agreed with this plan and started slowly toward the whales. I was extremely nervous. My mind was filled with concerns about being charged by the whales, having the dinghy capsize, getting caught in the net, or accidentally being struck by an enormous tail or pectoral fin. We estimated that the mother’s pectoral fin was about 10 feet long. Her pectoral fin was literally as large as our dinghy.

With Mary and me in the dinghy and Mark on Wendaway, we got Mark on the VHF and discussed what we saw. We described to Mark the extent of the whale’s entanglement. He asked us to estimate our probability of success. Mary and I agreed that we felt we had about a 70% chance of success. Based upon this, it was agreed that we would attempt the rescue.

Mary raised the outboard out of the water to keep it from being entangled in the net. With the motor raised we began to row toward the mother whale. Mary rowed slowly and began to speak comforting words to the whales. At first I felt uncomfortable trying the talk to the whales, but after a time, I joined in as well. Upon reflection, I realize the effect that Mary’s soothing voice had in calming my own fears. I also believe that the whales heard our voices and, while not being able to understand our words, they may have sensed our intentions.

As Mary rowed us toward the whales, we agreed that we would avoid positioning the dinghy on top of their bodies lest they come out of the water and capsize the dinghy. We also decided to start cutting just forward of the dorsal fin where the nets were the tightest. Mary rowed forward and we bumped the bow of the dinghy against the body of one of the largest animals on Earth. I leaned over the bow, grabbed a hand full of net and started cutting.

Drift nets are made from monofilament line. These nets are huge. They are sometimes miles long. They are held on the surface of the water by ropes suspended by floats. The nets are held vertically in the water by weights. The average drift net is up to a mile long and may extend 70ft or 80ft down in the water. They are set by fishermen and left to drift in the ocean unattended by fishermen for days at a time. This net appeared to have been in the water for some time before the hapless whales ran into it. Ensnared along with the whales were numerous dead and dying fish. These fish were bound tightly to the back and sides of the mother whale. It was a sad and gruesome sight that I may never forget.

As I cut the net, I began pulling on the net and working our way forward toward the snout of the mother. We had to be really careful. The mother was swimming along on the surface and seemed to be cooperating with our efforts. Mary and I were awed by the sound of their breathing. When they exhaled, their breath coming out of their blow holes made a loud whistling roaring sound that reminded us of the enormous size and power of these animals. It took me some time to get used to the sound. The mother’s blowhole was located about 6 feet in front of the dorsal fin. The blowhole was about 8 inches in diameter and was separated into two “nostrils”. There was a large flap of muscle and skin that closes off the blowhole when the whale submerges. We were so close to the mother that we were drenched with spray whenever she exhaled. Her breath smelled a little fishy but not all that unpleasant.

We work along in this fashion; with Mary keeping the bow of the dinghy against the whale and me pulling and cutting net as fast as possible. The mother seemed to be cooperating with us and stayed on the surface most of the time. Occasionally, she would submerge to a depth of about 6 feet. When we sensed she was going down we had to make sure we weren’t tangled up in the net and Mary would row away as fast as possible. We had a few close calls. The oars or the tow ring on the front would become tangled with the netting and we would have to take quick action to free the dinghy so we could move away. Occasionally, my hands or fingers would become ensnarled and I would be briefly in danger of losing a digit or being pulled out of the boat. I was very afraid.

As this cycle of surface swimming, interrupted with short shallow dives continued, it seemed to Mary and me that the whales were becoming more comfortable with us. I believe the whales began to help us with their own rescue. The mother would make her shallow dive, but when she surfaced, most of the time she surfaced near enough to the dinghy so we could quickly row back to her and continue cutting the net.

After about 45 minutes of hard work we had worked our way forward of the blowhole to the bumps on the mother’s snout. Most of her skin that we had seen and touched so far had been smooth. As we approached her snout, we could see close up, these large conical bumps about two inches high and two inches in diameter at the base. These bumps were terribly ensnarled with the net and were bleeding where the monofilament line cut into the whale’s flesh. It looked really painful. I carefully reached down and lifted the net away from the bumps, in order to cut the line without causing further damage to the whale’s skin. I had read about whales and I knew that they were warm blooded animals, but touching the warm, smooth skin of that magnificent creature somehow seemed to calm my fear and possibly made the whale feel more comfortable with our presence.

About this time a small Mexican fishing boat called a Panga arrived on the scene. There were two fishermen aboard and they began to help almost immediately. They scared us a little because they ran their boat up right on top of the back of the mother. Surprisingly, while she made a loud roaring sound when the panga made contact, she seemed to tolerate the boat on her back. One of the fishermen went to the bow of the panga and started cutting along side me. After another twenty minutes or so, we noticed that the mother and her calf were able to swim slightly apart. We had reached a major milestone in the rescue. The mother whale began to dive and we had to back away really quickly. The fishermen backed off with us and we watched to see if the whales would reappear near us once again.

They did reappear! This time the mother and her calf were able to swim separately but they still stayed close together. The fishermen decided to leave at this point. We thanked them for their help and got ready to get back to work. Before we got back to work, we conferred with Mark about the status of the rescue. While we were really encouraged that we had managed to separate the mother from the calf, both whales were still heavily ensnarled by the net and they still could not open their mouths. It was apparent that we still had a lot of work to do. Mark asked us for an updated estimate of our probability of successfully completing our rescue attempt. Mary and I conferred and decided to tell Mark that we were more than 70% sure we could do it. In fact, by this time both Mary and I were getting tired, I had cut my finger and neither of us felt anything like 70% confident. We knew however that if we gave Mark a lower probability he might order us to abort our mission. Neither of us was ready to throw in the towel so we decided to overstate our optimism.

In the mean time, Mark was busy handling communications and keeping the boat at a safe distance. We were not aware of it at the time because we were so focused on the rescue, but all during the time we had the dinghy in contact with the whales, we were being towed along by them as the swam north at about 5 knots. Mark had been in touch with other boats and someone had called the Mexican Navy to come to our assistance.

As we talked to Mark on the VHF and got ready to resume our efforts, several amazing changes began to occur in the whales behavior. At one point we looked over and the calf seemed to be showing us its snout. The calf’s snout was heavily wrapped with net, as was the mother’s. We decided to resume work on the mother because she was almost net free by this time and we felt if we could finish getting the net off her snout she had a good chance to survive. Mary rowed the dinghy right up to the front of the mother and I reached down and began to cut the net and rope away from her lips. There was a lot of the yellow poly pro line wrapped around her mouth so I began to concentrate on that. I pulled as much of it as I could to the surface and cut it into 3 feet to 4 feet pieces. I continued in this fashion and eventually was able to clear her snout. As the snout was cleared, the net began to slide back on her body and to disappear behind her. At this point the mother dove and stayed submerged for some time. When she returned she was completely free of the net! We were all so excited that we shouted and cheered! We were pretty confident that she was going to survive.

We conferred with Mark on the VHF again about our progress and told him that we would really like to stay and try to finish up with the baby. By this time the wind was picking up and there were a lot of pieces of net and rope in the water. This floating net and rope can easily get fouled in a boat’s propeller causing the boat to be disabled. Not wanting to endanger the boat Mark had decided to monitor our activities from a greater distance than he had at the beginning of the rescue. This distance, coupled with the rising winds and wave size was making it increasingly difficult for Mark to keep us in sight. Losing sight of us in the waves could have had dire consequences. After some discussion, we agreed that we would stay and work on the calf but that we would abort our efforts immediately if Mark began to feel that conditions were becoming too dangerous.

Mary began to row us back toward the whales. We tried to approach them on the mother’s side as we had before. Our thinking was now that she was free she might really become protective of her calf. As we got closer an amazing thing happened. Instead of protecting her calf, the mother maneuvered herself so that the calf was on the same side as the dinghy. She was actually helping us to free her calf! We looked down and could see the mother submerged below the calf with her body at right angles to the calf. She was holding up her baby so we could have better access. With the mother in this position, the only way Mary and I could more easily reach the baby was to position the dinghy directly over the mother’s back. If she had decided to surface she could easily have capsized us. The mother’s behavior did not seem threatening in any way, so we moved in, floating right on top of the mother and began to work in earnest on the calf. By this time we had gained enough experience cutting the net and were becoming confident enough that the whales meant us no harm, I went right to work on the calf’s snout.

The calf’s situation was still pretty serious. The net still enshrouded most of its body and was wrapped tightly around its mouth. Grabbing the net, I pulled us along the body of the calf so that I was positioned to work on its mouth. There was a lot of polypropylene rope and netting wrapped around its mouth. Unless we could cut it free, the calf would not be able to eat and would eventually starve. I started cutting the rope and net and tried to pull the rope out of the calf’s mouth. The mouth was really tightly closed and, at first, I couldn’t make any progress. As I cut the ropes closer and closer to the whale’s lips, it seemed to relax a little and I was able to begin working some rope out of its mouth. Similar to working on the mother, occasionally the calf seemed to become irritated and would try to submerge. Because the mother was directly under the calf, it couldn’t submerge without thrashing around a little. The calf would seem to struggle for a few moments, the mother would go deeper and the calf would sink. We would row away a little and wait to see what would happen. Every time, the calf would reappear at the surface with the mother supporting it. When the calf was back in position we would row back and would get back to work. One of the times the calf started to struggle, it flailed its huge pectoral fins around and one of them struck the hard bottom of our rigid bottomed inflatable dinghy. The sound of that fin hitting the bottom of the dinghy was terrifying.

Between dives I was able to make really good progress on the net. Eventually the snout came free and I started working my way towards the tail. As I cut net back toward the dorsal fin, the entire net loosened and began to slide back along the calf’s body. When the net was clear of the dorsal fin, the calf sensed that it was almost free and both the mother and the calf dove. They were gone for about five minutes and we thought we might have seen the last of them. When they returned to the surface, they appeared to be completely net free. We were ecstatic about our apparent progress but were not entirely certain that there was not netting on parts of the whales that we could not see or reach.

By this time we had been in the water about three hours and Mark called us on the radio. He said that the wind was picking up and the waves were getting large enough that he was afraid of loosing sight of us. We had agreed at the start of the rescue effort that Mark could make the final call about aborting the effort. So, we agreed to return to the boat.

We dropped the outboard started the motor and headed back to the boat. We climbed aboard, tired but optimistic that we had succeeded. The boat was about 70 meters from the whales and as we watched them, they made a vertical dive, their tails came out of the water and we were able to see for the first time that they were completely net free.

© 2012 Frank D Downey

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