First spotted late Thursday afternoon of the 9th of August 2018, a 15 meter Southern Right Whale, which became known as Tangles, was in distress at Cape Bridgewater near Portland Victoria.
DELWP sprang into action. Their annual training to free these gentle giants was once again needed. With a 4 meter swell and fading light, the rescue team finally managed to reach the whale by boat and assess the situation. A cray pot and buoys was wrapped around its tail cutting into the skin and causing fatigue from the drag.
Unfortunately since the whale was resting in the surf close to shore a rescue was not able to be safely commenced that day and the rescuers returned to shore, coincidentally followed closely by the whale as if asking for help. It was a heart wrenching decision by the team leaders but they did not want to put their team or the whale at risk by attempting a rushed job. The rescue process is long and complex and cannot be carried out in the dark. If the whale is not subdued or if it is not in a safe location it is impossible for responders to rescue the whale without significant risk.
Friday came and the whale could not be found despite an extensive search from land and air.
On Saturday Tangles had returned and was spotted in massive swells off the Cape Nelson Peninsula, more than 20 km from its original location. Again rough seas made approaching the whale very dangerous for both whale and rescuer. But Tangles was not alone, four other large whales were staying close as if protecting him.
Sunday came and this time Tangles was fortunately located in calmer waters north of Portland which meant the rescue could resume.
Mandy Watson, a Southern Right Whale researcher and Large Whale Disentanglement trainer from DELWP led the operation from the Mothership. Four boats, were used; a mother vessel, a support vessel and two small rigid hull inflatables which would approach the whale.
During the four hour rescue, a technique known as “kegging” was used. The rescue team attached four large buoys to the entanglement on the tail of the whale, to tire it out and keep it close to the surface. This allows safe access to the whale for the crew. Then a large, specialised one-sided blade on an extension pole was used to get between the rope and the skin of the whale, a very delicate procedure.
The operation was “textbook”. After following the training procedures closely, on the first attempt with one cut, the whale was freed of its entrapment. The boats and an aircraft stayed with Tangles for some time to make sure there was no further distress and assess the whale’s condition.
Photographer Mary Hartney was on shore recording the incident from land with videographer Peter Corbett. Both have reported that the moment Tangles was free, a double rainbow appeared in the sky framing the whale and rescuers.
Tangles has since been spotted at other locations including Encounter Bay in South Australia before taking his annual migration south. His wounds are healing nicely but the scars will always be a distinguishing mark on him.
Southern Right Whales were once hunted to near extinction. In the late 1700’s it is estimated there were 55,000 to 70,000 individuals, by the 1920’s the global population is thought to have reduced to 300. Today with the ban on Whaling and other protection mechanisms in place, it has recovered to over 12,000, however, the South-east Australian population is still very small and genetically distinct. It is estimated that there are only around 250 individuals in this population, which has a long way to go to full recovery.
Each Southern Right Whale has its own unique pattern of white markings (callosities) covering the head area which is used for photo identification. Mandy Watson leads the monitoring of the recovery of these beautiful creatures in South-east Australia through the maintenance of a photoidentification catalogue for the region. With the help of a growing army of volunteer whale photographers Mandy’s research is helping managers to better understand to size, distribution and relationship of the south-east population to the rest of Australia.
Each sale of a Tangles rose will support the cataloguing and analyses of the large volume of incoming photographs which are used in this critical research.
Please help to continue this vital work and support the large group of volunteers in the fight to protect one of Australia’s majestic marine species.