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Happy ending for Nettie the humpback entangled off Iceland

Image credit: Elding Whale Watching, Reykjavik

The recent rescue of an entangled humpback whale in Faxafloi Bay, off Reykjavik, Iceland, gives us both hope – and pause for thought – for the future of these majestic creatures.  The badly-entangled whale was first spotted in the Bay on July 30th and, as I reported in an earlier blog , we were able to put our contacts from the local whale watch community – including Elding Whale Watching and IceWhale, the Icelandic whale watching association, who had been closely monitoring the whale – in touch with entanglement experts in the UK and US.

A global entanglement response network is coordinated by the International Whaling Commission, as part of which specially trained teams, like those at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) in the UK, and Centre for Coastal Studies (CCS) in the US, are permitted to disentangle live whales.  After the Icelandic government granted permission to attempt a rescue, a BDMLR team flew to Reykjavik, along with an entanglement expert from IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare).  The team had to wait for weather and sea conditions to be right, before mounting what all parties were only too aware would be a difficult and potentially dangerous rescue attempt over the weekend of 15th-16th August. 

Despite being hampered by fishing gear wrapped around the tail stock, body and mouth, the humpback, dubbed ‘Nettie’ by the rescue team, proved feisty and energetic. The whale led rescuers a merry game of ‘cat and mouse’ as they attempted to second-guess where Nettie might surface to breathe and thus try to manoeuvre their small Zodiac sufficiently close to enable them to throw a grapple and catch one of the lines trailing from the whale’s massive tail.  After many hours of effort, and with the vital support of the Elding vessel, as well as local coast guard and other vessels, the team managed to attach some buoys to the line with the aim of slowing the humpback down, keeping the whale at the surface and, crucially, tiring Nettie out! 

However, it wasn’t until later the following day, after many more hours of exhausting and often dangerous effort involving several changes of buoys and rig, that the team could get close enough to slowly, but surely, cut away the fishing gear around the whale’s tail stock and body. Finally, mission accomplished!

Outlook for this whale

Most of the fishing gear entangling this whale was successfully removed and the hope is that the small amount of line remaining will drop off over time and wounds will heal. Without the rescue team’s intervention, an entanglement of this nature would almost certainly have proved fatal.

We are deeply grateful for the rapid and courageous response of the disentanglement teams to rescue this particular whale. However, we are also acutely aware that not every entangled whale is reported or freed.  According to a recent study, “disentanglement can be dangerous for responders and is not always successful, thus prevention should continue to be the primary goal.”

Thus, entanglement prevention is a primary goal of WDC’s bycatch programme.  As part of several US federally-appointed “Take Reduction Teams”, WDC works to create measures (ranging from gear modifications to seasonal restrictions in high-risk habitats) that reduce the risk of entanglements. This whale is a critical reminder to all of us at WDC about the importance of our work to prevent this increasing threat to whales.

Yet, at the same time, this whale is also a sign of hope.  Iceland is one of the best whale watching destinations in the world, with over a quarter of all visitors to Iceland taking a whale watch trip. Done responsibly, whale watching has many benefits, not just in terms of raising awareness and appreciation of whales and their conservation needs, but also, as in this case, literally saving whale lives. Whale watch vessels provide a regular presence on the water, and many pairs of eyes, thus increasing the likelihood of spotting and promptly reporting a whale or dolphin in distress.

 Sadly, whaling continues in Iceland alongside whale watching, and so far this season, 91 fin whales and 28 minkes have been killed, and the whalers regularly threaten to resume hunting humpback whales. Last month, fin whaler, Kristjan Loftsson, suggested that Australia would do well to start hunting its humpbacks to prevent them becoming a ‘nuisance’.

 This rescue has a happy ending: hopefully ‘Nettie’ the whale, once more swimming free, will delight whale watchers for many years to come.  Our campaign to see Iceland celebrated as a Whale Nation, not a whaling nation, continues – please support us!