Gather close for a harrowing tale that tests the scaffolding of the heart and mind! (And patience. It’s a long summary.)
We boarded our passengers for a 10am excursion aboard the Asteria, setting our course for the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. Captain Earl deftly eased us into a sector of humpback whales, who were engaged in dives of lengthy duration. These cetaceans seemed spectral in their inconstant surface behavior, but we noted an active humpback who sauntered in close proximity to another vessel. By size alone we determined it to be a calf under one year of age, and in its company hid a very unpleasant surprise.
The other vessel was actively monitoring the leviathan with care, for the youngling’s right pectoral flipper was entangled in fishing gear! The calf managed breaths of air at the surface between 2-5 minute dives, and seemed place our boat along its entangled flank during several close passes along our bow. At one point a humpback whale nicknamed “Chunk” passed along the calf, executing a tail breach and a single roll before continuing south. Perhaps commentary on the unfortunate adornment.
The blubbered babe was an enigma to us during the encounter, as the observer may only know a calf’s origins by identifying the mother who presumably remains near until season’s end. But mother was either absent or among the whales scattered for miles around the bank. Our NEAQ intern Emma aided in determining the calf to be that of Gumdrop, for the shape of the humpback’s dorsal fin matched photos of an encounter from our past excursion on July 22.
T’was curious in relation to the sighting of Gumdrop’s calf on the day prior. During yesterday’s 10am whale watch, Emma encountered the gear-free calf in the company of Gumdrop and another humpback named Sprinkler. On yesterday’s 12pm whale watch we headed to the same area, only to find Sprinkler with Gumdrop, sans calf. Mayhaps the calf sauntered towards the northwest between the two trips and became ensnared just 24 hours prior to today’s encounter.
As first responders to an entangled whale, we assumed watch so that our comrades could return to their port of call. Bestowed upon us was the responsibility to record the nature of the entanglement and communicate changes in the whale’s condition to incoming rescuers from the Center for Coastal Studies. Throughout our watch we were in the company of the 50’ NOAA vessel Auk, whose crew were recording whale behaviors under special permit. Ornithologists, naturalists, and students are enthused to volunteer in NOAA’s research cruises, and of today’s team we noted some of our own BHC naturalists! They took over our watch just as the CCS disentanglement rescue team arrived on their mighty steed R/V Ibis, equipped with customized cutting equipment. Daylight and sea state were in the whale’s favour, and our colleagues will keep you posted on the calf’s condition.
Stellwagen Bank is one of fourteen U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries that safeguard mammals from unsustainable hunting and harassment. Regulated fishing in this particular habitat is permitted so that the local economy and coastal communities can prosper from the seas, as they have for centuries. However, such license does present whales with potential danger, as each set of fishing gear fixed upon the ocean floor can double as a trap that does not empathize or discriminate. Modifications to fishing gear are proposed and utilized in an effort to curb the nature and rate of entanglements on megafauna, but fixed fishing gear remains one of the leading cause of mortality in cetaceans. Scars evident on the majority of Humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine suggest that many do encounter entanglement at some point in their lifetime, and this little bugger was fortunate to have empathetic humans nearby!
Disentanglement is a hazardous practice that is best left to those with the proper training and experience. Only a select few of heroic folks are conditioned to engage a unpredictable whale in distress. Rescuers in South Africa, Hawaii, Australia, and Massachusetts are often on call all hours, as danger needs no rest. We’d like to dedicate today’s summary to Joe Howlett, a career fisherman and co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team formed in 2002. He prospered from the seas, and so the whales ultimately prospered from his selflessness.
— Rich Dolan