Saving whales on Australia’s ‘humpback road’

Humpback whale tangled in a rope

Getting tangled in fishing gear can be a death sentence for whales

It’s like a needle in a haystack: how do you find an entangled whale in a vast expanse of ocean?

So how do you free the 20-ton giant from a maze of restraints when it’s panicked, sometimes angry, often hurt, and always determined to get away from you?

It’s a conundrum that sea rescuers like Wayne Phillips have to solve with increasing frequency.

Each year, around 40,000 humpback whales leave the freezing waters of Antarctica in the longest mammalian migration in the world.

They travel up the east and west coasts of Australia to the tropics before returning, calves in tow, a few months later.

For most Australians, the so-called “humpback highway” from May to November is a fun and exciting sight.

But for Mr Phillips and his team at SeaWorld in Queensland, it brings an undercurrent of anxiety.

The need for rescue is constant – and growing. “We always seem to be looking for whales,” he says.

How Rescues Work

Teams rely heavily on reports from the public, using them to guess the movement and trajectory of a struggling whale. If found, a complex and exhausting task begins.

First, rescuers essentially have to immobilize the huge mammal before it nervously moves away. Ironically, this involves methods originally used to hunt whales, says Susan Crocetti, rescue specialist at New South Wales Parks and Wildlife.

The teams approach by canoe before attaching large floats to whatever the whale is entangled in, to slow the animal down and tire it out.

Then they carefully trace the lines to be cut and when, before taking them out with a hooked knife attached to a long pole.

Much has been made of the impact of shark nets on whales, but rescuers say the real killer is ‘ghost gear’ – commercial fishing nets, lines and even anchors that get lost or abandoned in sea.

“Sometimes the tangles can be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of yards of rope wrapped in complicated layers around the whale,” Crocetti says.

“And you have to cut it in the right order.”

If you don’t, you risk freeing the whale enough for it to dive or swim – a potential disaster.

“Even the smallest amount of equipment will slowly cut the animal,” says Phillips. “So if we don’t delete everything…it’s a slow death and it’s not pleasant.”

deadly work

The stakes are also extremely high for lifeguards.

At least two people have died in the past two decades – most recently Canadian veteran Joe Howlett, who was killed moments after successfully freeing a whale in 2017.

Trapped whales are often seriously injured and “incredibly stressed”, says Ms Crocetti. “With the tail swish of a 20-30 tonne animal – if you’re in the wrong place – it can be catastrophic.”

Then there are the other challenges: fatigue, rough sea conditions, bad light and sometimes even sharks. This is not a job for the timid or the inexperienced.

The training includes swim tests, protective gear and cutting lines from a boat on the water. SeaWorld repeats with a 600kg fiberglass dummy whale nicknamed Moby.

“But it’s still dangerous for anyone, regardless of your experience,” Mr Phillips said.

wayne phillips

Mr. Phillips has been saving whales for nearly 30 years

Sometimes the task extends over several days. Ms. Crocetti’s team tracked a whale for months – over thousands of miles and two states.

They often lost track of the whale and were crippled by terrible weather, but eventually managed to cut the last line of entanglement. Ms. Crocetti describes it as a highlight of her career.

“Anyone who untangles a whale would say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done,” she says. “[But] that was really nice.”

Growing problem

Humpback whales were hunted to near extinction in the last century. In Australia, the number off the east coast had fallen to “just over 100” by 1963, according to previous government estimates.

Since the whaling ban, however, the local population has rebounded into the tens of thousands, experts say.

But it also means that more and more humpback whales are caught in the estimated 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear that is dumped in the world’s oceans each year.

And most rescue attempts don’t end well.

Last year, Mr Phillips’ team received reports of 30 whales caught in ghost gear. They could only locate and help two.

A crew tries to free a whale

A crew tries to free a whale

In one instance, he remembers spending two days trying to remove 70kg of chain from a whale in distress. But without a technique to remove the chain, the team ultimately couldn’t do much.

“We did our best,” says Phillips. “[But] it’s discouraging when you don’t do the work.”

It’s times like these that can make it impossible to tackle commercial fishing waste, but Mr. Phillips can’t imagine doing any other job.

“It’s a rollercoaster,” he says. “Sometimes you get excited, you think you’re making progress, and then the next minute you might have lost the whale.

“But it’s quite exhilarating once the work is done…to see them swimming, without any equipment, is quite overwhelming.”

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