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A Tangled Web
The wind has dropped a bit today but the seas are still rolling. We cruise east and then north towards Merimbula (18 miles north of Eden). After 35 miles of survey we come up empty handed. Our radio crackles, it is Captain Gordon on ‘Cat Balou’, “Have you heard about an entangled calf near South Head.”
“No," I replied.
Seconds later, “Naiad, Naiad this Eden Marine Rescue” (“Naiad” is the name of our vessel, Greek for ‘Sea Nymph’), the operator calls. “We have a report of an entangled humpback calf near Boyd’s Tower heading south. There is a small recreational boat nearby but the can not stay due to the high seas. Can you investigate?”
“We’ll be there in 10,” I reply, and we head southwest at a rapid clip.
At 10:15 am, we locate the small vessel slowly making their way to port. “The whales were going south towards Mowary Point,” they shout over the waves. “Good luck!”
We cruise south about two miles, and finally pick up the blows of the mother and calf only a few hundred meters from the shoreline. We cautiously approach. We want to make sure the whales are not disturbed by our presence, and allow them to acclimate to us.
Within ten minutes we are slowly paralleling the pair, traveling at 3 knots. The calf is mired in line and trailing a buoy. The gear appears to have come from a fish trap or crab pot. There is 1/4 inch line wrapped under the calf’s chin, looping over its head, forming a bridle or noose in a knot posterior to its blow holes, with two lines trailing over its dorsal fin, one extending some 2-3 meters and trailing a six-inch algae-covered Styrofoam buoy.
The calf appears healthy, fit and unharmed by the fishing gear. There are no abrasions or raw areas indicating the entanglement is relatively new, perhaps in the last 72 hours or less.
The calf can dive, albeit briefly. The trailing buoy disappears for up to a minute at a time before bobbing to the surface. Normally when mother-calf pairs migrate they cruise some 20-30 feet below the surface and then breathe every 3-6 minutes. This pair are visible at all times, just below the water’s surface, and breathing every 30 -60 seconds.
Captain Gordon calls us for an update. We request his assistance to call NSW Parks and Wildlife Service and request they call us. Annie is busy photo-documenting the event and Amanda is recording data and observations.
Twenty minutes later we brief Parks and Wildlife on the situation. They request we stay with the whales while they mobilize, and that we call in GPS locations of the whales every 30 minutes.
Two hours later, the Marine Police vessel ‘Victor’ appears on the horizon carrying two Parks Officers, George and Grant, who are tasked with making an in-field assessment of the situation. We direct them to the whales, let them make their observations and then brief them on what we see as the desired course of action.
“Removing the trailing buoy is the least we can do, if we are unable to cut the bridle knot from the calf’s back,” I recommend.
There is no disentanglement gear or telemetry equipment in the region. The Merimbula office has ordered in the gear from Melbourne and is seeking advise from Jeff Ross a marine mammal entanglement expert based in Sydney. The gear is placed on the next plane into the region from Melbourne, destined to arrive around 3 pm.
The vessel ‘Victor’ returns to port about 2:30 to collect more staff and the incoming gear. Meanwhile we remain in telephone contact with Parks and the Marine Police. We continue to cruise south with the pair. As we approach Green Cape, the whales depart the shoreline and begin to head ESE – away from the Australia coastline. Next stop: Antarctica. We either get the gear off now or they are truly gone.
Amanda looks about and says, “The swell just kicked up.”
She’s right. Once you pass Green Cape we begin to pick up the ocean swell influenced by the Bass Strait. We now are encountering swells 3+ meters high and cresting. Not good.
We are nearly 3 miles out to sea and the mother slows. “It’s about time,” I say, “I have never seen a mother swim for nearly five hours straight with a calf and not take a nap or feed her calf.”
The female turns 30 degrees to the east, slows to a near stop, the pair arches, the buoy sinks and the pair disappears. Literally. At 3:30 pm they are gone.
We desperately search the rolling swells. We begin a search pattern. Nothing.
We call in our news to Parks and Wildlife, “We have lost the whales.”
We relay their last GPS location and continue to search. Just as we call in our missing whales, the gear arrives the dock in Eden and two Marine Police vessels along with a Parks vessel are dispatched to the area.
“Stand by, we are also dispatching an airplane to the area,” Wildlife Officer Max reports.
“Wow, I am impressed!” said Annie, “They are making a serious effort to remove the gear from this calf.”
Minutes later our reinforcement flotilla arrives. We brief them anew on the situation. Moments later we hear the drone of the aircraft's engines overhead.
We are running out of daylight. Search as we might, the pair were not to be found. Steve Davey, NSWPWS Incident Officer and Dave Costello, NSWPWS officer both call to thank us for our dedication and diligence. While we are grateful for their accolades, their praise doesn’t help alleviate our frustration.
As we cruised back to port, dodging rainsqualls and racing the setting sun, I reflect upon how we all play an integral and important part in the ‘web of life’. We are all interconnected, for better or for worse. And when we humans make bad choices we tangle that ‘web’.
Tonight I have a message for all fishers of the sea: take home what you place in the sea. Take home every hook, line and sinker. If you drop fish traps or crab pots, retrieve them. Mark their locations with a GPS. Never make an excuse why you can’t come back. Ghost traps and nets kill for decades without prejudice.
Tonight there is a baby humpback whale carrying your fishing gear to Antarctica. Let’s hope it lives to tell the tale about how they were the one that ‘got away’, and sheds your gear.
The whales and all marine life deserve our respect, especially from those who make their living from the sea.