Shortly before midday yesterday, Solent Coastguard were contacted by fishermen off Blackpool Beach, near Dartmouth, on the south coast of Devon, as they had found a humpback whale entangled in their pot ropes while hauling them aboard. The Coastguard immediately contacted the emergency hotline at British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and some of their volunteer Marine Mammal Medics in the area were mobilised to the scene.
The local Coastguard team from Dartmouth attended as well, along with the RNLI’s Inshore Rescue Boat (IRB) in support and to help monitor the situation while the BDMLR team gathered and prepared for a rescue attempt. During this stage of the incident, BDMLR Devon Area Co-ordinator Dave McDonald and Assistant Area Co-ordinator Tim Coleman went out on the IRB to make an initial assessment of the condition of the whale, as well as trying to see how and where it was caught on the rope line, which was marked by two buoys next to the whale itself.
Once the full team had arrived, a plan was made with the RNLI and Coastguard on how to attempt a rescue. As far as could be seen so far, the whale had a single rope line caught around its tail, but was holding it down well below the water’s surface, which made seeing and reaching it difficult. The weight of the gear was holding it in place and it had so far remained near the surface, coming up to breathe frequently. BDMLR team members Dave Jarvis, Alison Shearer, Annabelle Lowe, Josie McDonald and Cath Nay stayed on the beach as the onshore support team, co-ordinating with BDMLR Head Office and dealing with people and the media who had already started to arrive. Dan Jarvis was put aboard the fishing boat with spare disentanglement equipment, which the crew were more than happy to use as a support vessel, while Dave and Tim went with Chris Lowe on the IRB with two of their crew to attempt a close approach to the whale to try to disentangle it. After a few tries though, it became clear that as the whale was holding its tail so low down below the surface, there was no chance the IRB team would be able to do anything unless it could be raised. Dave came aboard the fishing boat and a new plan was made to haul the gear aboard to get the tail up so that the IRB could approach and try again. The whale already appeared tired by this point, but it was still able to muster enough energy on the first hauling attempt to dive and take the buoys underwater with it, meaning it was now completely lost to sight.
After several minutes of breath holding (from the team!), the whale eventually resurfaced close to the fishing boat much to everyone’s relief, and hauling efforts started anew with more success, yet it was still too strong and as soon as it started to move it would take the haul rope and buoys back overboard. Regrouping, it was obvious more people were needed to help haul and the two boats now switched roles, with the fishing boat now the primary rescue vessel and the IRB acting as safety support. Chris and Tim came aboard with a member of the RNLI crew, while their all-weather lifeboat stationed at Salcombe was also launched to come help. After a few more hauling attempts that felt more like having a tug of war with the 20-tonne whale, the tail was being brought above the surface and the team were just inches away from being able to cut the rope free from the tail before it moved away again. However, the sun was now beginning to dip behind the hills and time was running out.
Luckily, the Salcombe lifeboat arrived on the scene at that moment and two more crew came aboard to join in. Finally, after more than two hours, the tug of war succeeded, the twisted part of the rope around the whale’s tail was finally cut, and the whale disappeared briefly. Seconds later it surfaced some distance away, and continued to move slightly inshore and along the coast towards the Salcombe direction until it was lost to sight.
BDMLR would like to thank all their Marine Mammal Medics who were involved in this incident both on site and on the phone (especially Julia Cable!), the RNLI crews of Dartmouth and Salcombe, Dartmouth Coastguard team who all gave up their own time as volunteers for a job well done. They would also like to say a very special thank you to the fishermen who did absolutely the right thing in reporting the incident, but also stayed out all day to assist and allowed the use of their vessel for the rescue itself – without their help the outcome of this situation would have likely been very different from the success that was had in the end!