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Ha'apai Humpback Whale Rescue

Date Published: Jul 29th, 2018 - Comments
Author: Vanessa lill

A humpback whale entangled in rope and chain in Tonga's Ha'apai Islands was successfully freed on Friday, July 27. Passengers and crew from NAI'A had to scuba dive to cut away the weighted lines that were so dangerously wound around the whale's body that it could barely stay at the surface to breathe. 

This is NAI'A Cruise Director, Vanessa Lill's, personal account of the rescue.

After an incredible morning of whale encounters, we all came back for lunch feeling fortunate and blissed out. But a distressing radio call asking for assistance came in from a local day operator. They’d found a humpback whale badly entangled in rope, unable to swim and barely able to breathe. While NAI’A steamed to the whale as fast as possible, we began gathering all the cutting devices we could find – dive knives, hack saws, bolt cutters, even steak knives! We also organised a team of divers willing to help. Fortunately, we had a marine biologist onboard along with his regular dive buddies, all of whom are exceptionally strong in the water and work very well together as a team.

The other whaleguide had already snorkelled with the clearly exhausted whale for over an hour, comforting it and gaining its trust. But she didn't have the resources on board to actually free the whale, whose pectoral fins were pinned to its sides with a thick rope that continued towards the fluke, wrapping around the peduncle 8-10 times. From there, two long pieces of rope, weighted down by heavy chain, hung 20 feet below, holding the whale in a fluke-down position from which it could hardly get its blowhole above the surface.

The weighted ropes were hanging too deep and the rope was too thick to cut loose without using SCUBA. Freediving would have created more activity, noise and distress to the animal and we would have needed to make countless dozens of deep breath-hold dives to get this job done.

The first team included a safety diver and two others who approached the whale from in front to get it used to the noise and physical sensation of divers. When it showed no signs of disturbance, we moved in to begin tackling the weighted ropes hanging from the fluke. This took many attempts because the whale flinched each time someone started to saw through the heavy rope. Our divers backed right off each time and allowed the whale to settle, but eventually the rope and chain were cut free and plummeted to the depths.

Step one complete! This was a huge relief, because at least the whale could float horizontally and breathe more easily. Yet we were nowhere close to finished; we still had the huge conundrum of how to release the taut, tightly twisted rope wrapped around the pec fins and fluke. By now everyone in the water felt that the whale understood that we were friends. We all silently willed it to let us help. At no stage did we feel that it was angry or threatened by us and likely to lash out. Yet no animal can fight a reflex and we knew that when we pulled on the ropes digging into painfully raw flesh, the enormous whale would inevitably flinch. But, to free those remaining ropes, the only way was to get right up close; we were extremely nervous that someone might get injured. The first team made a few brave attempts to swim up to the pectoral and cut through the rope, but the whale flinched each time and they had to back off.

We were mentally and emotionally drained at this point. We had gained somewhat but there was still a long way to go. And all this time the whale was crying out, letting out anguished screams that broke our hearts. We’re not ashamed to admit that we were crying into our masks, sorry for human impacts and frustrated by our futility.

A fresh team of divers got in, bringing a burst of energy and completely clear heads. Working together, they did an amazing job. Three of them, with nerves of steel, physically yanked the first piece of rope off the whale's pectoral fin. Clearly understanding that we only wanted to help, it let them do it with very little reaction at all. As soon as the first pec was free the rope loosened up and allowed them to free the other pec. There were whoops of delight all round as the 20-foot long fins rose to the surface and the whale regained normal posture.

At this point, the whale easily could have swum away from us. But it stayed, apparently trusting us. The rope was still tightly wrapped around the peduncle and fluke, clearly cutting into the whale's flesh. It would surely hurt as we untangled it - but that was unavoidable if we were to save this beautiful animal. Our courageous and committed team continued to work relentlessly. There was one terrifying moment when the whale threw its enormous fluke around, breaking one diver's mask. That was a very clear sign to all involved just how risky this business was.

Finally, FINALLY, our team came to the last few loops of rope and with a big fluke thrust, the whale shook free and the operation was complete! Every single person in the water and watching from NAI'A shouted out with absolute joy! And here we come to the happiest end of this story; rather than darting off as we expected, thrilled to be free, this frightened, exhausted whale turned slowly and swam right to us, looking long and steadily into each of our eyes.

A peaceful silence replaced those heart-wrenching cries of distress. In that silence, as I stared back into this whale's eyes, I clearly understood her saying “thank you.”

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“Fiji is a hot spot of biodiversity. We’re here for the rich colorful soft coral reefs as well as the unusual stuff - the strange little creatures and endemic fishes.”

Dr. Tim Laman, biologist and National Geographic Photojournalist

~ Dr. Tim Laman, biologist and National Geographic Photojournalist