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Team work saves the life of a humpback whale off Iceland

 I have pleasure introducing a guest blog from María Gunnarsdóttir, Project Manager for IceWhale, the Icelandic Whale Watching Association, which promotes whale watching and whale conservation.  María was personally involved in the successful mission during mid-August to free ‘Nettie’ the humpback whale found badly entangled in Faxafloi Bay, Reykjavik, Iceland. Here, she tells the story of the rescue in her own words:

“I’ve long been inspired by the Save the Whales movement and have played an active role in the fight against whaling in Iceland, but I never imagined physically taking part in saving the life of a whale. Okay, so I wasn’t the one actually cutting the fishing gear, but I was there, on the water, cheering from the support vessel.  

As soon as I heard about Nettie’s situation, something moved inside me. The entangled humpback whale was in the whale watching area and had been seen by passengers on local whale watch tours. I knew they had to be experiencing similar emotions to mine, even though, at the time, I had yet to see the whale. I couldn’t imagine how the crews must be feeling, as they’d many times had to witness the spectacle of the whale dragging the gear behind it.

I already knew that there was no official action plan for handling entanglements in Iceland, so I started with IceWhale’s network. I walked between the whale watching companies in Reykjavík (Elding, Special Tours and Whale Safari) and, by the end of the day, we had a plan. I also contacted the Icelandic Coastguard, (which last year had managed to free an entangled humpback whale in North Iceland), the Marine Research Institute and the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority.  

Our first attempt

Somewhat naïvely, but with good intentions, we decided that we would do our best to help the whale.  As weather conditions were not ideal, it took us a few days before we could make our first attempt and by that time, local interest and awareness had grown. The press had picked up the story and a local film director asked if he could accompany us to film the rescue attempt. The Coastguard joined us on their Rib and, given their prior experience, we decided that they would make any close approaches, equipped with a knife on a long pole. Our first attempt proved challenging as the whale was quite elusive and we were aware that we lacked the proper tools. However, the Coastguard team managed to cut away at least some of the gear that Nettie was trailing, but after a couple of hours, they abandoned the mission and we all agreed that we needed to be better equipped  if we were going to succeed.

We stayed for a while aboard the whale watch boats, trying to gain a better understanding of Nettie’s entanglement and behaviour and taking pictures and videos as we’d been advised. Despite a deep scar around the fluke and heavy entanglement in the fishing gear, we were amazed to see Nettie lunge-feeding, rolling, pectoral slapping and surfacing right next to our vessel. Unfortunately, we were not in any position to assist at that moment, but it confirmed our growing awareness that great patience is needed for this sort of work.  It was hard to leave Nettie that evening, but the fact that the whale was feeding and moving reasonably well gave us confidence that we would have another chance the following day.

Unfortunately the weather changed again and was unfavourable for a few days – and, worse, Nettie seemed to have disappeared. We worried that we might have spooked the whale and perhaps chased Nettie out of the bay.  However, on the Friday, we got a call from local whale watching vessels to say that Nettie had been sighted; however, the weather window was too short for us to react. So, we continued to wait, trying not to think too much about Nettie’s problems out in the bay.

A local problem becomes global

In the meantime, a bigger ball had started rolling and we realized just how well connected we are. WDC had rapidly put us in contact with British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), the International Animal Rescue and the IWC’s Global Whale Entanglement Response Network. All of a sudden, we had an international response team willing to come to Iceland to assist us with Nettie’s disentanglement! While these experts were waiting for permission from the Icelandic government to mount a rescue attempt, they strongly advised us to refrain from trying it ourselves as they described Nettie’s entanglement as too severe for inexperienced people to intervene.

It was really hard sitting back doing nothing, especially at a time when we were uncertain whether these experts would be able to join us or not. The weather remained unfavourable but, once we got the statement that the government wouldn’t stand in the way of this international response, things moved really fast. The following day, the rescue team flew in and the day after that, we were back on the water.  By the third day, Nettie was free of most of the fishing gear.

Lessons learned

Looking back, I’m extremely grateful that I was able to be involved in this project. I wish, of course, that we should never have to deal with these problems but sadly, I’m afraid that this won’t be the last entanglement in our waters. Personally, I’ve learned a lot, not only about the proper methods to assist an entangled whale, but also about whale behaviour. I thought I’d heard a whale’s trumpet blow before: but once the rescue team attached the first buoy to Nettie, I just wanted to cry at the sound. It was a touching moment; naturally Nettie didn’t like dragging this extra float in addition to the fishing gear, but it was all for the greater good. The buoy slowed Nettie down so that the rescue team could approach the whale more easily and reach the gear that needed to be cut off.

It was difficult being on the support vessel, as you don’t always understand what’s going on from a distance. On day two, we were really losing our patience: we were all tired and wanted to see more action. There were even times when the local divers on board just wanted to break the primary rule of the operation and jump into the water to try to cut some gear off. Luckily, we trusted the experts and it was amazing to see them in action. They taught us that it’s all about seizing the right moment – and when that moment came, I can’t describe the feeling on board. We were afraid to celebrate too quickly, but after watching Nettie eventually raising its fluke perfectly, the joy broke loose.

When we returned to the harbour, we were greeted by the local whale watch community and interviewed by local media – we got great coverage on the evening news! What I’m particularly happy about is the interest Nettie’s story attracted locally. It’s a good sign when a community that’s not known to care much for whales is all of a sudden following the story of a single whale and cheering for its disentanglement.

Naturally, we worried about failing and what that could mean for future entanglements as well how that might affect local sentiment regarding whales. But – we succeeded, because we all got together: local and global, competitors, friends, families, experts, government officials and other players. No-one was obliged to be there, but we all wanted to, because we cared. We’ve made good friends and great things will come out of this. Surely this will trigger too, an official Icelandic Action Plan regarding entanglements and, as BDMLR expertise includes whale stranding responses, there’s a chance that they might do an official training here in Iceland which would be extremely valuable.

What next for Nettie?

Maybe Nettie was just so happy to be free of the fishing gear trailing behind that the whale just swam far away; but whatever the reason, Nettie hasn’t been seen since the rescue just over a week ago. We know the whale watching community will keep their eyes wide open and will compare fluke shots to see if Nettie is spotted in other areas.

Big thanks to everyone!

I really don’t know where to start thanking people for their involvement. Everyone tried their best to help, from government officials, to Customs, the Coastguard and police and, naturally, the whale watching community and their extensive network. I’ve yet to mention all the international help we got. Thanks to Vanessa from WDC for putting us in contact with the right people and pushing things forward. Thanks to David, Scott and the IWC Global Whale Entanglement Response Network for their knowledge. Particular thanks must go to Alistair, Geoff and Mark from BDMLR and to Brian from IFAW, the brave team who physically performed the rescue at the ‘sharp end’.