A humpback whale rescued off the west coast of Vancouver Island Friday was in worse condition than any entangled whale Paul Cottrell has seen in his years with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
“He is in tough shape,” Cottrell, a South Surrey resident, said Monday of the juvenile animal he cut loose over the course of about four hours Friday evening.
“You could tell it was emaciated.”
Cottrell, who is the Pacific marine mammal co-ordinator for DFO – and directed activities around last Wednesday’s highly publicized orca rescue in Hartley Bay – got word of the distressed humpback late Thursday from Brian Gisborne, a researcher contracted by the federal agency who spotted it off of Nitinat and Carmanah Point while conducting a grey-whale survey.
Friday, Cottrell joined fishery officers in Victoria and, supported by Parks Canada, headed out to look for the animal, arriving in the area around noon.
After about five discouraging hours, they found it – wrapped in “long-line” commercial gear, including ropes, buoys and even a steel pole.
“We had to get multiple cuts to get it off. It was so far into the blubber… this animal’s going to have major scarring.”
Cottrell said the whale rescue was the fourth in five weeks; a fifth entanglement was reported, but efforts to locate the animal were unsuccessful. If the trend continues, 2015 will be a record year for the incidents, he said.
“It’s awful to see,” Cottrell said.
He noted the task of disentangling whales is highly specialized, because of the danger involved.
“People in other parts of the world have died,” he said, noting whales weigh approximately one ton per foot of length. “Just the sheer power of this animal, you have to be so careful… have a good understanding of the behaviour of the animals.
“Sometimes, they can turn on you, not realizing you’re trying to help.”
Cottrell, who has been involved in whale rescues for about seven years, is one of just a few worldwide who are trained to remove the gear, and is one of two Canadians on a 15-member global disentanglement network led by the International Whaling Commission.
“If I get a particularly tough case, I’ll be on the phone or online with these 15 guys.”
Cottrell described fishery officers as key to his success in any whale rescue, and Friday was no exception. Parks Canada provided the support vessel, he added.
Timely reporting of distressed animals is also critical, he said, encouraging anyone who spots an animal trailing gear to immediately call the 24-hour B.C. Marine Mammal Incident hotline, at 1-800-465-4336.
Regarding the freed humpback, Cottrell said he is “cautiously optimistic” about its future. The animal’s progress will be closely monitored, he said.
It was obvious the humpback was relieved to be free of the fishing gear.
“The animal immediately had a burst of energy,” Cottrell said. “We followed him for a bit, we could tell immediately he was doing a lot better.”
Cottrell said efforts will be made to track where the fishing gear that was wrapped around it originated, noting it’s believed it came from the U.S., and possibly from as far away as Hawaii.
Based on the damage, he estimated the animal became entangled six months to a year ago.