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Recent Humpback Whale Entanglement in the Bay of Fundy

I have some friends that do some pretty amazing things to help wildlife.

On Sunday, I got word through the stranding network I help run in Nova Scotia, the Marine Animal Response Society, that a well-known humpback whale in the Bay of Fundy, Foggy, was badly entangled in fishing gear.

Ropes are visible stretching across Foggy’s back and through her mouth <br />© Chris Callaghan/Pirate’s Cove Whale Watch

Ropes are visible stretching across Foggy’s back and through her mouth
© Chris Callaghan/Pirate’s Cove Whale Watch

This was devastating for our friends with Pirate’s Cove Whale Watch who discovered her as she’s a very well known to them. Born in 1987, Foggy is a regular visitor to our waters and, on at least four occasions, she’s brought her calves here to feed. Usually Foggy delights hundreds of thousands of whale watchers who marvel in seeing her swim along in these beautiful waters, occasionally launching out of the water to give them a glimpse of her huge 50+ foot body and 15 foot long white flippers. Unfortunately this was not one of those moments.

Reported as in distress by another whale-watch, Todd Sollows, Captain of the Pirate’s Cove vessel Fundy Cruiser and former member of the whale disentanglement team in the Bay, went to investigate. What they found was horrifying. According to Chris Callaghan, the guide onboard, Foggy had ropes wrapped several times around her head and across her blowhole as well as a loop of rope across her peduncle (the narrow part just before her tail). She was dragging a mass of old lobster traps beneath her and the weight of all that gear was causing her to list to one side. She wasn’t moving which made the Captain conclude that she likely was anchored to the spot by the weight of the all gear. Luckily, she was still able to reach the surface and was breathing quite regularly and normally.

Todd and crew, along with researchers from the Provincetown Centre for Coastal Studies who were working in the area, stood by Foggy until the Campobello Whale Rescue Team arrived from the other side of the Bay to attempt disentanglement. Within less than an hour of their arrival, these highly trained experts, using specialized equipment, freed Foggy!

The incredible thing is that throughout the entire ordeal, Foggy remained calm and allowed the team to approach her to within a few feet. Amazing when you think that the zodiac the team was working from was less than half the size of the whale herself! The trust on both sides was truly remarkable.

Whale rescue team approaching Foggy to remove ropes wrapped around her head.
© Chris Callaghan/Pirate’s Cove Whale Watch

What’s also interesting was that, during the entire incident, another whale, Grommet, stayed by Foggy, never leaving her side, and upon her successful release, she launched herself out of the water in a massive breach! A thank you perhaps? A ‘sigh’ of relief? We’ll never know. But we will know that these highly trained experts saved Foggy’s life.

Grommet launching into a massive breach next to the whale rescue team
© Chris Callaghan/Pirate’s Cove Whale Watch

Foggy was lucky. If she had become entangled in a different area or far out to sea, the outcome may not have been the same as we wouldn’t have known or been able to get to her. There are so many whales out there, including almost all of the endangered North Atlantic right whale population, that have scars from being entangled in gear or are still carrying ropes. We don’t know for sure what kind of gear in which Foggy was entangled. However, we do know that any kinds of rope or netting for fishing, mooring lines, lost gear or lines used for other activities have the potential to accidentally entangle animals.

This form of bycatch is a widespread problem, in Canada’s and the world’s oceans. This incident, while having a happy outcome, highlights that, while it’s so important to have people like these amazing rescuers nearby, we really need to do more to reduce the chances of incidents like these from ever happening in the first place!

Addressing this issue is of particular concern for endangered whales – like the North Atlantic right whale – a species which has been a conservation focus for WWF-Canada and its partners and supporters for decades. This species is listed as endangered under our federal Species at Risk Act. While its status was decided long ago because of its devastatingly low population size of between 350-500 animals, the federal Action Plan, which our stewardship and research activities have helped inform and shape, is overdue by several years. This plan will detail the actions that need to be taken to reduce the threat of entanglement to this fragile population. Most entangled whales don’t have a happy outcome like Foggy. We can’t delay action any longer.

These animals have enough to be getting on with just in living their lives in a dynamic, complex and ever-changing environment. Why should they also have to deal with daily threats of becoming entangled in ropes or hit by vessels? It doesn’t make any sense…especially as it’s within our power to make a difference.