21010 03 17- Our first time on the water this year and first whale we find is severely entangled Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   


In the photo above you can see the line pinning its right pectoral fin against its body and the abrasions of the rope on the whale's back. All these photos were taken with a 300mm telephoto lens and then PhotoShop was used to crop the image to make the whale appear closer.

Because of consistent bad weather and also because I've been in front of computers editing "Where the Whales Sing" this was the first time out on the water this year. After waiting since May last year to go out looking for whales on Sea Slipper we were very excited, having seen whales already numerous times from South Shore. We set off at 9 am and returned ten hours later. Unfortunately, the first whale we encountered, in fifty feet of water barely two miles off Somerset, was an entangled whale.

Above you can see how its mouth is forced open by the rope tangled on its lower jaw and the lines crossing its back pinning the left pectoral fin against its body.

When we first saw this whale breach from a distance it did not roll onto its back and whack the water with the outer pectoral fin. Calves don't have the strength to launch themselves out of the water and this whale breached some fifty times but each time it breached it only exited the water to its dorsal fin and then flopped onto its chin in a belly flop. Occasionally we caught sight of something on one side of the dorsal fin and then on the other side. We could also see its back was scarred.

Above you can see the pinned right fluke and the rope trailing off to the other side.

We hung around hoping to get a fluke ID photograph but that too was another clue that all was not right. Despite multiple breaches, many of them in deep water, the whale never showed its fluke. Something was wrong.

Sometimes the cluster of polyprolene rope moved across the back to the other side.

We were idling when the whale breached right beside the boat and we could see with our naked eye the pectoral fins were pinned to the side of the animal and that they were pink from abrasions. That was when we realized the humpback was entangled. A quick examinaiton of the photographs on my camera revealed that the whale was severely caught in black, polyprolene rope. On one side there was a red rope or a buoy attached.

The rope seems to be a single line that has gone into the whale's mouth, like a bit on the bridle of a horse. From each side the rope has pinned the whale's pectoral fins against its body and draped over its back and tail. Whales use their flukes to angle their bodies up and down when surfacing and diving and it was no wonder this whale didn't curve its back the normal way, showing its fluke as it sounded.

Above you can clearly see the rope across the whale's back, pinning the left pectoral fin against its body.

These photograpsh show how badly, and painfully this whale must be caught up in this rope.

Balleen whales keep the lids on their mouths shut at all times except for feeding. This whale could have line through its mouth by opening it to feed.

According to entanglement experts, this could be an entanglement that occurred on the feeding ground.  There are many cases from Hawaii in which the gear removed from entangled humpbacks had originated on the feeding grounds (off Alaska in particular).  Basically, the only definitive way of knowing exactly where an entanglement occurred is by retrieving and positively matching the gear. 

Again, according to experts, this whale is thin (but not emaciated), has compromised skin tone and lesions.  That doesn't mean that the whale is on death's door--it simply means that the entanglement did not just occur.  Whales have been known to remain entangled for a long time without intervention, depending on the severity of the entanglement.  Furthermore, they can travel huge distances in short time periods--especially our whales that are on migration.  Basically, there is no evidence that this whale got into its entanglement recently and so nothing to suggest that this necessarily occurred at Bermuda. A whale in the condition in these photos (and capable of breaching) should have been capable of fending off sharks which typically wait until a whale is pretty much defenseless before attacking. 

That being said, we did witness a mother and calf two years ago with an entanglement in the calf's mouth and head. The emaciated mother had what appeared to be a recent shark bite out of the trailing edge of her fluke- the flesh was dangling by a strip of skin. The mother breached multiple times until another whale. presumably an escort, arrived.

The sight of this entangled whale had me up most of the night. This is the third badly entangled whale we have encountered in Bermuda over three years. It's an ominous sign when it's the first whale we encountered and photographed this season.


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