Rescue team frees 1st entangled whale since 2017 death of volunteer Joe Howlett

Campobello Whale Rescue Team freed a young entangled whale Saturday off Brier Island, N.S., its first emergency response on the water since fellow rescuer Joe Howlett's death last year.

'If I stopped whale rescue, Joe would come back to haunt me. I know he would'

The whale calf was born in January and appeared to have rope wrapped around its head. (Courtesy of Neil Green)

In a series called Deep Trouble, CBC News explores the perils facing the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Campobello Whale Rescue Team freed a young entangled whale Saturday, its first emergency response on the water since fellow rescuer Joe Howlett's death last year.

Members of the organization, which comprises fishermen, a biologist and other volunteers, rescued a baby humpback whale just off the coast of Brier Island, N.S.

Director Mackie Greene said they received the call around noon on Saturday and it took the rescue team about an hour and a half to reach the bay in Nova Scotia.

What they found was a whale calf with rope bound twice around its head, which would have eventually killed the animal as it grew. Greene said it took members of the team nearly four hours to remove the rope.

Greene, who co-founded Campobello Rescue with Joe Howlett in 2002, said his late teammate was definitely on his mind as he headed out Saturday.

'It's been a struggle'

Howlett died during the rescue of a North Atlantic right whale on July 10, 2017, almost exactly one year ago.

"It's been a struggle, obviously. Joe was a very close friend and team member," said Greene. "Yeah, I think of Joe daily, that's for sure."

He acknowledged he had reservations about going out on a rescue again and Howlett was the reason he resumed.

Joe Howlett is pictured during a previous rescue, using a long pole with a knife attached to cut a whale free from fishing gear. Howlett, a member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, was killed last year during a rescue. (Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium)

"If I stopped whale rescue, Joe would come back to haunt me. I know he would," said Greene.

He said he wondered how he would deal with the first rescue since Joe's passing, but it went well.

"It was great. We miss Joe. Joe was great at it, you know, but we got the job done."

When three rescuers first got to the site, the calf was struggling to get her head up high enough to blow. The Canadian Coast Guard was also waiting there as a safety boat until the rescue team came in, and stayed during the mission.

Protective mother

Greene said their biggest challenge was the calf's mother, who kept trying to protect her baby.

He said the mother managed to stay between the rescuers and the calf, so they had to take extra time and caution to avoid angering the mom.

"That was sort of the amazing part of it. Just to see the bond between the two and how protective she was of her baby."

Campobello Whale Rescue Team made its first trip out to help a distressed whale Saturday, nearly one year after Howlett died during a rescue. (Submitted by Neil Green)

When they would move to the other side of the struggling animal, Greene said the mother would swim underneath the calf and come between them again.

At times the calf would swim toward the rescue boat, seemingly looking for help, Greene said, but the mom would cut the calf off and give her baby a push in the other direction.

The adult whale was about 15 metres long and probably weighed about 36 tonnes by Greene's estimate, while the calf,  born in January, was about six metres.

"We have telescoping poles and we put our cutters on the end and [we] even had to put an extra length of pole on that ... just so we could reach over top the mother to get the calf."

It took the mother a while to get used to the rescuers but they took their time, and once she let them get close enough, they were able to make the cuts necessary to set the whale free.

Greene said the four-hour rescue went well. However, without the mother's interference, it likely could have taken only about 15 minutes, he said.

The rescue took just under four hours and was a collaborative effort. (Courtesy of Neil Green)

Shelley Lonergan, research co-ordinator of Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises, was leading the tour that first came in contact with the tangled whale.

One of the 40 passengers on the tour that afternoon spotted rope on the entangled calf. Lonergan then made a call in for rescue teams to help.

"Once we made the calls and I knew Campobello was on its way, that's when it really set in that this little whale's in trouble. It breaks your heart when you see it," she said.

There was a lot of seaweed tangled with the rope, Lonergan said.

She said she believes the baby whale had probably been rolling in rockweed when it got tangled in a rope that may have been discarded.

The baby calf was seen with no signs of rope attached as it swam away freely. (Courtesy of Neil Green)

A relief to see freed calf

Lonergan said this doesn't happen often, and the last whale they saw entangled was two years ago.

After the rescuers came, the tour moved out of the way.

Lonergan said during a later tour Saturday, they saw the same calf swimming freely with no visible rope on it.

Greene said he thought Howlett would have been particularly excited about the rescue on Saturday.

"Joe got really excited once you got a whale, especially a calf like this very close with its mother ...yeah, he would've been real ecstatic."

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