Orkney humpback freed

A specially trained group of volunteers from BDMLR’s large whale disentanglement team were mobilised to assist a humpback whale on Monday 2 October. A local fisherman discovered the animal anchored in his fishing ropes and did absolutely the right thing by asking for help to rescue it as safely as possible.

Entanglements are a global concern and occur wherever wildlife and fishing activities overlap. These incidents can impair an animal’s ability to breath, feed, swim and reproduce, are distressing and potentially dangerous for those discovering them. BDMLR’s Large Whale Disentanglement Team (LWDT) is comprised of volunteers who have gone through extensive training in how to approach stricken animals and use specialist equipment to free them from ropes, netting or other materials. These rescue attempts are extremely dangerous, and lives have been lost in the past in other countries, so BDMLR has been working to raise awareness of the team’s existence, skills and availability in recent years.

In this instance, volunteers travelled overnight from Glasgow, Dundee, Moray and Ullapool to Kirkwall, and then on to the island of Westray to meet with local BDMLR team members. The fishermen who reported the entanglement remained on hand to assist, and along with support from local fish farm, boat club and chartered vessels, the disentanglement team were able to approach the whale in their specialised RIB to first assess the animal and identify the entanglement configuration. Once a plan had been made on which cuts needed to be made and where, the team returned to the animal, which remained relatively calm throughout. They then began cutting and removing all the entangling lines that were twisted around the tail. The whale was anchored by its tail to the seabed, but using specially designed cutting tools, they were able to quickly free the animal before daylight faded. Once the animal had been freed, the local Westray community welcomed the team safely back to shore and provided overnight accommodation for the whole team.

We would like to extend our sincerest thanks to all BDMLR team members, local residents, businesses and the fisherman for all their extraordinary efforts in making this rescue possible.

Entanglement in fishing lines and nets is a growing concern globally and is considered by many to be the most significant welfare threat to marine mammals of our time. However, it is important to remember that no entanglement is deliberate, and more often than not it is fishermen who are more upset and affected by these incidents than anyone. It is also important to remember fishermen often play a vital role in successfully releasing these animals, by reporting incidents and providing assistance to rescue teams, as was the case here.

BDMLR are part of a collaboration called the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA), which was initiated in 2018 after the inshore creel sector raised concerns over entanglement within their industry. To date over 150 creel fishermen have contributed to SEA’s work by sharing information on their marine wildlife encounters, experiences of entanglement, and their ideas of ways to reduce the risks of these incidents occurring in the future. This is already leading to some exciting developments which would not be possible without the industry’s continued support and participation working alongside conservation organisations.

If you are a fisherman and you encounter a live animal entangled in your gear, please report it to BDMLR’s hotline on 01825 765546 for assistance from their Large Whale Disentanglement Team. The SEA project will also gratefully receive any information you have to share on entangled animals and can be contacted on entanglement@sac.org.uk or 01463 246048. Your help in recording these incidents would be very much appreciated and any information you share will be treated positively, sensitively and confidentially.

The success owes a number of thanks to people who gave up time, transport, food and even beds, including: Andy MakinCooke Aquaculture Scotland Ltd, Brian Kent,Harry, John and Eileen, Peter Banczyk, Sandy and Willy of Westside Manse, Karen and Andy of the Old Mase, Tina of Biggin and Kim of Balaclava for providing very welcome accomodation, and Westray in general for being so welcoming. Special thanks to Northerly Marine Services for assistance with transport for the third time this year. Finally and no means least, our medics Teri, Emma and Imogen along with our LWDT members James, Noel, David, Boonie and Smudger!

Photos courtesy of: Noel Hawkins and Teri Charlton.