SAWDN members during their rescue of a tangled Humpback whale.
CAPE TOWN - The South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN) responded to a whale which was in distress after it apparently became entangled in rope off Fish Hoek near Cape Town on Saturday.
Craig Lambinon, spokesperson for the SA Whale Disentanglement Network said that at about 3:30pm on Saturday the SAWDN was activated after reports of a Humpback whale suspected to be entangled in rope about 100 metres off-shore of Sunny Cove near Fish Hoek.
Earlier in the day, at around 08h00, Brent Walton, from Capri, jogging along the Fish Hoek cat walk noticed the Humpback whale appearing to be in difficulty. Brent’s concern was that the whale seemed to be staying in the same place for a long time without moving. ”
“Brent contacted authorities who went to investigate but because whales are often seen close inshore and basking in the sun there in that area it appeared that the whale was in no trouble and later, at around 3pm Brent returned to the scene by car to check on the whale and after observing the whale, again for a while appearing to be remaining exactly where he had seen the whale earlier, and convinced that the whale was in trouble he contacted the sea rescue emergency number and the Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA) alerted Sea Rescue Simonstown and SAWDN were activated.
NSRI Simonstown dispatched two sea rescue craft, Spirit of Safmarine III and Spirit of Surfski II, carrying SAWDN trained volunteers while local SAWDN volunteer Dave Hurwitz dispatched his local whale watching craft Sea Panda.
On arrival at the scene at around 4:30pm it became clear that the 8 meter Humpback whale was anchored and trapped to the sea bed by Whelk trap lines.
“A rope appeared to be entangled around the whales tail and the line was anchored to the sea bed by most likely the lines between the whelk traps which had snarled around the whales tail effectively meaning that the whale’s tail (bottom side) was trapped under water to the sea bed and only the front of the whale could reach the surface for air and most likely with difficulty but with the tide flooding it meant that perhaps at the approaching high tide the whale would be submerged beneath the sea surface and unable to breath."
‘”At the earlier high tide we suspect that the whale had the strength to pull on the rope hard enough to surface the top part of its body for air but now with the whale appearing to be tired and lethargic it became a race against time to try to cut the rope from the tail which was at least 6 to 7 meters below the surface and out of reach of the specialised cutting poles.”
Lambinon said that to try to compensate for the dilemma, grappling hooks with cutting edged hooks were placed in the water and trawled behind the sea rescue craft to try to snare the responsible rope line (or rope lines) entangled around the whale’s tail.
During the delicate operation, and making every effort to avoid hooking the grappling hooks around the whale itself, which may have caused risk of injury to the whale, the operation continued into the night.
Realising the severity and the desperation of the situation the SA Navy were placed on alert to come to assist.
“During the trawling of the grappling hooks one of the edges hooked the rope but the thickness of the rope caused the extra strength stainless steel hook to bend beyond repair.”
At this stage the Whelk Trap company, on hearing of the desperate situation, dispatched two of their craft, the Albatross and the Puffin. They began to haul up their whelk trap lines in an awesome effort to try to find the line responsible for snaring the whale.
“It appeared that their effort assisted as the whale seemed to finally get some movement.”
During the dual effort, while the two Whelk trap boats raised the Whelk trap lines (about a kilometre from where the whale was), and with one of the sea rescue craft trawling the SAWDN grappling hooks, SAWDN appeared to be able to cut a line using the grappling hook trawling on rope.
“By now, well into the night, and using the sea rescue boats search lights to illuminate the area, the whale appeared to be moving more freely and gaining strength and on closer observation no more lines could be found on the whale and although cautiously optimistic it appears that the joint effort has freed the whale successfully.”
As a precautionary measure, Sea Panda, Albatross and Puffin was on patrol in the area on Sunday to try to locate the whale and double check that it has no more lines around it.
“Brent has been commended for going to the extra effort of checking on the whale that he had thought to be in trouble earlier in the day.”
By Midday on Sunday no sign of the whale had been found and SAWDN remained optimistic that the effort on Saturday night had saved the whale.
The SAWDN urged the public and sea farers to report any suspicions of whales entangled but not to get involved in trying to self help the whales but to rather alert the necessary authorities.