Rescuers search for entangled humpback whale off Vancouver Island

A humpback whale tangled so tightly in thick rope that its fins are torn is somewhere along the southwest coast of Vancouver Island in need of help.

“We need to put the word out that if anybody sees it, they call our hotline,” said Paul Cottrell, marine mammal co-ordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “This entanglement is almost certainly going to be lethal if nothing is done.”

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Cottrell got a call Sunday morning that a distressed whale had been spotted off the coast of Tofino by researcher Jim Darling. Darling sent photos, showing rope digging several inches into the whale’s blubber.

“We zipped up there in a few hours with fisheries officers and the coast guard. … The whale-watching companies maintained visual contact with the whale until we could get there,” said Cottrell, whose expertise is freeing marine mammals from entanglements.

“The whale was in terrible shape. It’s a juvenile, but still massive. The rope around it was quite tight. It had a laceration on the dorsal fin and cutting deep into the [pectoral] fin. It was pretty graphic,” Cottrell said.

The team spent two hours trying to free the whale and managed to loosen the rope. When they did, they discovered a mass of rope underneath the whale. They are unsure where the rope came from or how long it has been on the whale. It could be fishing gear.

“We were able to loosen some of the rope, but the animal took off,” Cottrell said. “We haven’t been able to [see] it since. It’s an awful situation.”

He said if they could find the whale and rehabilitate it, it might have a chance of survival.

Cottrell has responded to more than eight entanglements this year. He said the gear found on whales is most often not from Canada.

“These animals travel huge distances. We’ve pulled stuff off from Hawaii [and] Oregon,” he said.

The most tragic case he said he’s seen was a few years ago on the shore of White Rock where an emaciated humpback whale, tangled in gear for what was thought to be weeks, beached itself and died.

Cottrell hopes the whale he encountered off Tofino doesn’t meet the same fate.

He said that anyone who sees it should not try to engage it personally or touch the rope. They should call the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network hotline at 1-800-465-4336.

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