Cheers when whales are freed

2015-07-21 06:00
The number of incidents in which whales have been caught in ropes along the South African coast has increased.


The number of incidents in which whales have been caught in ropes along the South African coast has increased. PHOTO: NSRI

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As the winter brings an increased number of whales to our waters, the chances increase that the giants become entangled in ropes, nets and lobster traps.

Such cases are rising, says South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN) head Mike Meyers.

On average, 15 to 17 cases of whale entanglement are reported every year. However, this number is increasing yearly as the population increases, he says.

This year has seen eight cases already, with the whale season still only beginning. It is expected to peak in September.

Ten years ago, a huge number of entanglements were reported, prompting the department of environmental affairs to approach the lobster industry to fund training from an American whale disentanglement specialist.

The department invited a range of roleplayers and SAWDN was born, with basic training and a set of equipment taught on a mechanical whale tail.

The network now includes a variety of partners, including the Dolphin Protection Action Group, National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), Natal Sharks Board, researchers and whale watchers, Meyers says. This has created 17 centres along the South African coastline.

Every year, a new group is trained and more equipment is manufactured. It costs about R25 000 to set up a new team.

The Network, which is now the fourth largest in the world, is also affiliated to the International Whaling Commission and shares information and best practice techniques with organisations from other countries.

The public should report any sighting of an entangled whale immediately, says Meyer. There have been reports of people being killed by whales in the past, he explains, which is why the general public should never attempt to free a whale themselves.

The Network will immediately dispatch a boat to locate the animal and monitor it. The disentanglement team will then follow, using an appropriate knife to cut off whatever rope or net the whale is caught in.

The Network has a 100% success rate in disentangling whales trapped on the sea bottom. However, whales entangled but able to break free are difficult to follow, and an entangled whale can face a very slow death, with it taking up to nine months for the caught whale to die.

Disentangling the whale can be very dangerous, Meyer explains.

While humpback whales easily tire and will stop thrashing about, southern right whales tend to kick their tails sideways and this can seriously injure a volunteer.

Safety is very important and the volunteers never enter the water, Meyer says. Only the best equipment is used and all volunteers are trained.

An entangled whale will spin around in the water to attempt to free itself, Meyer explains. This usually pushes the rope towards the whale’s tail, which the whale will kick. This action can be very dangerous to crew trying to help the whale, he says.

“It’s a very scary thing the first time you assist a whale. Many volunteers go out with their heart in their throats,” he says.

But this is all worth it, as freeing a whale is a very emotional experience.

“We’re all geared towards getting that piece of rope off. At the same time, we’re very close to a large animal, and they often cry in fear. Sometimes they don’t even realised that they’re free and we need to give them a touch before they take off like a bullet,” he says. “At that stage, although we’ve been as quiet as possible the whole time, the entire team will cheer.”V

Report entangled whales to the Dolphin Action Protection Group on 021 782 5845 or to the NSRI on 021 434 4011.V

For more information or to get involved, contact Mike Meyer on 082 578 7617.

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