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Healthy humpback whale helping an entangled humpback to the surface to breathe

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The journey of an entangled whale

Hayley is WDC's engagement officer, specialising in creating brilliant content for our website and publications.

Brace yourself for an emotional rollercoaster as field director Paul Satchell shares his encounter with a humpback whale who became entangled in fishing line, as seen in episode one, Ocean Odysseys, of the series Incredible Animal Journeys on Disney+. Filled with twists and turns, this story is a powerful reminder of the need to protect these magnificent climate giants.

Here's Paul to tell you more …

We stumbled upon the entangled whale while we were filming in Hawaii in 2021. We originally went out to film a humpback birth, which we did successfully. But while we were there, we heard through the grapevine, or the ‘coconut wireless’ as it’s called in Hawaii, that an entangled whale was approaching Maui from Oahu.

Humpback whale entangled in rope
This is one of the 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises who get tangled in fishing gear each year worldwide. © Kimberly Jeffries | Connor Gallagher | National Geographic. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a tourist group found the whale a few days before us and attempted to save her, but sadly, they couldn't.  The 100-foot line was wrapped around her mouth and she had been dragging it 3,000 miles from Alaska to Hawaii. The chances were that she hadn't been able to eat for weeks or months, and by the time she got to Hawaii she was emaciated.

Harbour porpoise entangled in gill net on a beach in Wales

Can you help make the seas safe for whales and dolphins?

A treacherous journey

Whales, like this individual, who migrate across vast distances are hugely vulnerable to the impacts of humanity. Their extensive journeys span thousands of miles across international waters, often traversing various borders where protection from the international community may be lacking.  The impacts of the climate crisis make navigating the ever-changing underwater environment challenging enough, without the added risk of entanglement in fishing gear. Travelling across the ocean can be treacherous, and this humpback was unable to make her way through the labyrinth of obstacles she faced along her route.

Humpbacks travelling from drone
Whales deserve to roam the sea safely and freely.

A heartbreaking scene

We knew we had to try to find her. And when we eventually did, we followed her for a few hours. She was encircled by 14 or 15 large 12-foot tiger sharks who were occasionally darting towards her to try to take a bite. Could they take the risk? She still had a little bit of fight in her.

By the end of the afternoon, she was really suffering. The tiger sharks began circling in again and started to take little bites. We feared the worst for her. She was barely breathing; she was just sitting. The whole scene was heartbreaking. You know, I've never seen a whale in that much pain or suffering as much as she was. She was starving to death and scared for her life. We were all very emotionally affected by what we were witnessing, but we didn't know what was about to happen.

Humpback whale entangled at waters surface
We began to lose hope. © Kimberly Jeffries | Connor Gallagher | National Geographic. 

Hope from a humpback

The entangled whale was calling for quite some time and then, we heard another call. A healthy whale approached the entangled whale and started chasing off all the tiger sharks by slapping their tail, fluke, and pectoral fins. We had several people in the water at that time, and the whale took one look at us and returned to the tiger sharks as if to say ‘You guys are fine’ – now that was an incredible moment.

It's as though she knew we weren't a threat. © Kimberly Jeffries | Connor Gallagher | National Geographic. 
It's as though she knew we weren't a threat. © Kimberly Jeffries | Connor Gallagher | National Geographic. 

We were already cheering with excitement because of what we had just witnessed. Predatory defence behaviours like this have been observed in orcas and other whale species, but mostly between family members. This was a particularly unique situation. We didn't expect this from humpbacks, and we certainly didn’t expect to see it in the breeding grounds in Hawaii where such interactions are rare. Plus, it’s unlikely that these two whales knew each other, let alone were related in any way. We hadn’t seen these whales together prior to this interaction, the healthy whale just came in to answer the call.

CG 3
CG 6 (1)

A hero in the form of a humpback whale. © Kimberly Jeffries | Connor Gallagher | National Geographic.

At this point, the entangled whale was still struggling, she ware barely able to swim to the surface. But what happened next was astonishing. The healthy whale swam underneath the entangled whale and lifted her slowly to the surface so that she could breathe. This happened a couple of times and seemed to energise the dying whale. It gave her that little bit of hope, perhaps, or at least the energy to begin swimming again. The last we saw of the pair; they were swimming off into the sunset.

Entangled humpback whale breathing at the surface
A moment of respite. © Kimberly Jeffries | Connor Gallagher | National Geographic. 

Now, it's highly unlikely that the whale survived, but at the very least, she was given a little bit of a fighting chance by the other whale. It’s clear from this interaction that whales are emotional, empathetic, and they understand each other, and we need to take more time to understand them.

Healthy humpback whale helping an entangled humpback to the surface to breathe
The more we discover, the more we are inspired and humbled by these incredible beings. © Kimberly Jeffries | Connor Gallagher | National Geographic. 

Things have got to change

This encounter is a pretty good microcosm for everything that we are currently doing to the ocean. We’re decimating it and using it as a dumping ground. Whales are already recovering from hundreds of years of industrial whaling, and now they’re being confronted with not only climate change but food and habitat destruction, noise pollution, vessel strikes, and entanglement. Many hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins and porpoises die every year as a result of entanglements – it’s their biggest cause of harm and death today. It’s a very painful process for them and it's not a quick death and often takes weeks or longer.

If this happened on land, I think there would be more of an outrage, but since it's happening out of sight, no one is taking much interest. To me, as someone who is often away for long periods in the ocean space, it's very visible.

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Humpback Dunbar, Scotland credit East Lothain Ranger Service
Orkney minke whale with net SMASS

No whale should have to suffer like this. © East Lothain Ranger Service and SMASS

We must be that change

We seem to be doing everything we can to make whales’ lives as difficult as possible even though they’re key to helping us tackle the climate crisis. When whales undertake their long migrations from their feeding grounds to their breeding grounds, like this humpback whale did, they release nutrients across vast distances fertilising phytoplankton that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Whales are climate giants and we should be trying harder to protect these magnificent beings before it’s too late.

Here at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, we’re working hard to make the ocean safer for whales and dolphins. We’re running multiple projects with scientists and fishers to find new ways and new technologies that reduce the risk of entanglements. Most of the instances that occur are completely preventable, and it's up to us to make that change. We need a healthy ocean, and a healthy ocean needs whales, we must protect them.

The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of WDC.

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