Nova Scotia

Minke whale freed from net entanglement close to Digby shore

The five-minute rescue freed the minke whale from the fishing nets caught deep in its skin.

Tangled whale seemed to swim to shore in search of help, rescuers say

The whale swam close to shore, almost as if it was searching for help, the men said. (Nathaniel Denton)

Three men from Digby who rescued a whale entangled in a net say it seemed like the animal swam to shore in search of help.

Barry O'Neil, Nathaniel Denton and Dallas Kenley were working on a boat on Digby's waterfront when they spotted the distressed minke whale. 

​"I just happened to stop what I was doing for a minute, and I heard something in the water," Kenley said. "So I looked behind me and I seen a little dorsal fin in the water."

"At first I thought maybe it was a porpoise or a dolphin or something."

In waist-deep water

Kenley got up from under the boat he was working on and realized it was a whale at least 15 feet long. It was swimming close to shore in waist-deep water and had fish netting tangled around its mouth. The netting had kelp growing on it.

"Whales, they're big mammals and their skin's really thick, but the net was almost digging into his skin by an inch or so. It looked like it had been there for a bit," Kenley said. 

"It could still kind of open its mouth, but it was a decent sized piece of net. It probably was a nuisance for the whale, and I don't know if he would have been able to eat right or what."

Whale seemed relieved

The three men got into the water and gently pulled it closer to shore so they could help. Kenley said it took about five minutes for the men to cut the net off. The whale was bleeding because the net was so deep in its skin.

They said it seemed like the whale was relieved when the final bit of netting came off.

"It just relaxed and the three of us kind of gave it a little nudge back out to deeper water." he said. 

"He took off and just slowly swam away. We watched him swim for a few hundred feet. In a matter of minutes he was gone.

"It's kind of surreal." 

In search of help?

Kenley said it seemed like the whale came close to shore to find help. 

It is unusual for entangled whales to swim so close to shore as the one did, says Tonya Wimmer, president of the Marine Animal Response Society in Halifax.

"There have been reports obviously of whales in netting before. It's just that we've never had one reported where it came that close to shore with that much netting still wrapped around it in that way."

Whale entanglements not unusual

Net entanglements are one of the main causes of death and injury to marine mammals, says Wimmer.

Last year, minke whales were one of the most commonly reported species in terms of entanglements or dead animals in the Maritimes.

"I think we had six or seven cases of minkes being entangled or entrapped in different gear around the Maritimes in just [2015] alone, and that's just when people have reported them to us."

The Marine Animal Response Society knows of several humpback whales tangled in nets that have been spotted by whale watchers in the Bay of Fundy, and is monitoring that situation.

'These animals do surprise us'

Unfortunately, Wimmer says it's not likely the minke whale will survive, despite rescue efforts. The whale seemed like it hadn't been eating lately due to its size. 

"All whales are usually fairly plump. They're fairly round. You don't usually ever see evidence of bones, like their ribs or things like that, and with this animal you do," she said.  

"I mean it was great that they were able to get it out of the gear in that way, because it was obviously suffering. But the odds of it surviving are probably slim just given its state.

"But you never know, these animals do surprise us." 

Wimmer said anyone who finds a whale in distress can call the Marine Animal Response Society's toll-free hotline at 1-866-567-6277.