Nfld. & Labrador

Hand knives and snorkels: How entanglement experts free whales

The Whale Release and Strandings Group shares the tools of the trade, after freeing its first entangled whale of the season.
'They hardly even know they’re free sometimes,' says Wayne Ledwell of the whales he rescues. (Jane Adey/CBC)

The whales that need the most help from humans are often the hardest to find.

Trapped in fishing gear, entangled whales can get so exhausted that they stay silent and still just beneath the surface, conserving energy for their next breath. 

That's just one nugget of whale wisdom from Wayne Ledwell, an entanglement expert with the Whale Release and Strandings Group.

It's also true of the case of his first hands-on rescue of the season, involving a humpback off Cape Race on Friday.

"It was caught through the mouth, it'd been caught feeding … There was heavy rope that went over its head and back down into the gear," he said.

"The gear was really, really heavy. It was three fleets of whelk gear, all tangled up together." 

This whale swam away as soon as it was free. Ledwell says he saw it blowing off in the distance. (Submitted by Wayne Ledwell)

It was two days after the initial call about the struggling whale before Ledwell was able to find it, hovering quietly beneath the surface, he said.

But the whale wasn't still for long.

"The animal's going up, it's going down, and it's going sideways. It's trying to get away from you, and it's doing its best, it's trying to get up and breathe. When it does come up, it's the only time you can go in and try to work on it," he said.

They hardly even know they're free sometimes.- Wayne Ledwell

There were hours of struggle before Ledwell was even able to start cutting the nets away from the whale.

"And then when we did manage to make a cut … we didn't see the whale anymore. It was gone," he said. 

"They don't stick around and wave and jump out of the water or anything, or say thank you. That's just not in the game plan; they just go."

Complicated and dangerous

The Whale Release and Strandings Group grew out of Memorial University's Whale Research Group, founded 40 years ago to free whales, leatherback sea turtles and basking sharks from fishing gear. The aim was to keep the animals alive, and keep the expensive gear as intact as possible, to minimize the hit for fishermen.

"Before the cod moratorium … I'd be on the road non-stop," Ledwell said.

"But now there's very little fishing gear in the water."

This humpback was caught in three sets of fishing gear near Cape Race. (Submitted by Wayne Ledwell)

It's complicated, often dangerous work, but the tools he and his team use aren't specialized.

"Probably the most important one we have is a mask and snorkel," he said.

"You can look under the water and see how the whale's entangled, and then you can plan on how you're going to get that gear off of them."

His team uses a soft-bottom inflatable Zodiac to get close to an entangled animal without hurting it. The Zodiac is also easy to lean over from, to stick their faces into the water and size up the job, he said.

"You can see if the animal changes its behaviour and you can get away from it really fast if you have to."

The Whale Release and Strandings group team, from left: Kim Enserink, Everett Sacrey, Ledwell and Julie Huntington. (Jane Adey/CBC)

As for the cutting gear, "they're cook knives that we screw on the end of a pole," he said. Those poles can be extended up to three metres, depending on how close the crew can get to a whale.

Sometimes he even just uses a regular hand knife.

Smack 'em with a paddle

Ledwell didn't have to do much rope-cutting to free the humpback on Friday.

With a flick of the knife, the whale was loose — and gone.

Ledwell often uses a pole with a knife screwed into the end to cut the fishing ropes off whales. (Submitted by Wayne Ledwell)

Ledwell said he saw the spray from its blowhole off in the distance.

"If they haven't been in gear that long, they just go. But sometimes they've been there so long that they just lay there," he said.

"One thing we used to do with them … we smack 'em on the back with a paddle and try and get 'em to wake up. Or we go around and splash water around them. They hardly even know they're free sometimes."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The Broadcast


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