New Brunswick

Campobello rescuer not confident all 3 entangled right whales can be freed

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team from New Brunswick is heading out today to work at disentangling three North Atlantic right whales in southern waters off the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Mackie Greene says level of difficulty of rescuing each whale is about an 8

Three North Atlantic right whales are entangled in the southern waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, according to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team from New Brunswick is heading out today to work at disentangling three North Atlantic right whales in the southern waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

It's an endeavour rescue team director Mackie Greene says is nearly impossible. 

"I don't really expect that we'll get all three," Greene said Monday.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Greene said the difficulty of disentangling all three whales is about an 8. 

"I'm hopeful while we're up there we can get one this trip."

The team left Campobello, a tiny island off the southwestern shore of New Brunswick, early Monday morning and is travelling to Shippagan, close to 500 kilometres away in the northeastern part of New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula. Team members will put a zodiac boat in the water Tuesday and begin their search for the three entangled whales.

Since early June, six North Atlantic right whales have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

"With six deaths already this year, this population can't handle any more," Greene said. "It's dire that we get up there and try to do something with these whales."

According to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, officials on a Transport Canada plane spotted the right whale east of the Gaspé Peninsula. It appeared to have rope trailing from both sides of its head down its body, but has not yet been identified.

The body of a right whale known as Punctuation, seen from the rear, was towed to Cape Breton for examination last month. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

The second whale was spotted by a researcher east of Miscou. It appeared to be trailing a line of rope from underneath its body. Officials said they believe the animal, known as No. 4423, was previously entangled in U.S. waters in April.

The third whale, No. 4440, was spotted on June 29, by the coast guard and DFO, east of Miscou. It had rope around its tail stock and appeared to be dragging something heavy.

That whale was spotted again, still entangled, last Tuesday.

All three whales were spotted in areas already closed to fishing, officials said. Certain zones of the St. Lawrence have been closed to fishing to lower the risk of whale entanglement. 

During this week's whale rescue mission, two other members of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team will work with Greene.

Transport Canada, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will fly planes overhead to try to locate the entangled whales. Officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will also be there along with Canadian coast guard vessels.  

"It's a big undertaking that we're getting ready for here," Greene said. "We're really pulling out all the stops."

Weather is crucial in whale rescue

The whale rescue team has been waiting about a week for weather conditions to improve, hoping for light winds and calm waters so they can do their job properly.

If the weather holds, the team expects the rescue mission to last about a week.

You don't really have time to think while you're doing it. It's always after the fact like, 'Holy cow.' ​​- Mackie Greene, Campobello Whale Rescue Team

"The smoother the seas are, the better we can see the whale and the lines that are on the whale underneath the water," he said. 

"If it's very rough, it just beats us so bad in the Zodiac that we can't actually work on the whale. And it scares the whale more, too, because the boats make a lot more noise in the weather. You know, lifting up and slapping down on the waves. So you can't really get near him." 

A tough job for volunteers

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team disentangled a small humpback whale almost two weeks ago off Miscou Island.

This will be the team's first disentanglement of a North Atlantic right whale this year. 

Greene said the team faces a difficult job just to find the whales. The rescuers will then have to try to get close enough to work their cutting tools under the relatively small amount of rope each whale is wrapped in.

"You don't really have time to think while you're doing it. It's always after the fact like, 'Holy cow,'" he said. 

The death of nine-year-old Wolverine was the first whale death reported in 2019. (Gabrielle Fahmy/CBC)

"You see these whales, and they're injured and they're hurting, so you feel really bad. You're so wound up, you don't even really think about the danger."

Greene said he isn't sure how long it will take to find the whales, which don't have satellite tags and can only be spotted by plane. 

"It's kind of like finding a needle in a haystack," he said. 

2 years since death of Joe Howlett

Joe Howlett, who was killed on a rescue mission two years ago, flashes a peace sign. The elation of saving another life drove him to do right whale rescues. (Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium)

This Wednesday will mark two years since the death of Joe Howlett, a volunteer whale rescuer who was trying to disentangle a North Atlantic right whale.

Greene said it has been hard not to think about Howlett during this week's mission. 

"That definitely was heavy on everyone's mind."

Joe Howlett uses a long pole with a knife attached to cut a whale free from fishing gear during one of his rescues. (Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium)

Greene and Howlett started the rescue team in 2002 and promised to keep it running.

"We always said if something happened, we're going to keep it going," he said. "So here we are, we're still going."

There are only about 400 of the endangered whales left in the world.

"There's nothing that feels any better than when you've been successful," Greene said. "That ride home, you can almost get out of the boat and run across the water you're so excited."

Corrections

  • In an earlier version of this story, the number of one of the entangled whales was incorrectly given as No. 4400. It is No. 4440.
    Jul 11, 2019 11:19 AM AT

About the Author

Elizabeth Fraser

Reporter/Editor

Elizabeth Fraser is a reporter/editor with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She's originally from Manitoba. Story tip? elizabeth.fraser@cbc.ca

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