Wayne Phillips has both feet firmly on dry land as he acts out cutting a whale loose from fishing gear.
The 51-year-old head of marine sciences at SeaWorld in Queensland oversees the park’s marine rescue team – four cutters, a coordinator, a captain and a videographer – who untangle humpback whales that have become bound up in rope and net.
The cutters, he explains, are armed with a gaff – a graphite pole similar to a fishing rod but topped with a reverse knife that doesn’t cut into the whale if it connects – and work in pairs to combat muscle fatigue.
Out on the water, with a 27-tonne giant in distress, the purpose-built rubber boat used by the team pitches and rocks on the waves.
The goal for the cutters is to aim the gaff to hook the correct rope before pulling it back hard to sever it clean.
“You reach out, lunge out and pull back – and all that’s based on where the tail is,” Phillips says. “You might get one or two shots at it, then the whale might divert or dive.
“It’s an exhausting process. By the end of the day, you’re buggered.”
Phillips has worked in marine rescue for the better part of 28 years, helping dolphins, seals, turtles and other animals when entangled, stranded or sick.
Now a growing part of the work involves disentangling humpback whales.
Humpback numbers have bounced back from near extinction to about 30,000 in what is widely considered a triumph of conservation. But now the species faces a new human threat: climate change.
As the world’s oceans warm and acidify, humpback whales – like other marine species – are altering their ancient migration patterns in search of food and shelter.
And as they are wander into new areas along Australia’s coast, the growing overlap with the human world can be lethal.
An invisible problem
Globally it is estimated 300,000 large whales and dolphins die in entanglements each year, though only a fraction are ever recorded.
As definitions vary by jurisdiction, what counts as an entanglement and what gets included in official reports often masks the scale of the problem.
According to records collected by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the International Whaling Commission, Australia recorded just 436 whale entanglements between 1887 and 2016.
However these records do not include sightings of whales towing gear reported by the public, or whales that have become tangled in crab pot lines. By contrast, Queensland’s shark control program alone recorded 80 humpback whales snagged in its nets between 1992 and 2020.
Phillips says there were 28 reports of entangled whales along Australia’s east coast last year, of which his team was able to assist in two. He estimates that despite the best efforts of marine rescue outfits around the coast, only one in five reports are acted upon.
Across the country a mix of government agencies and private organisations operate marine rescue teams, each with responsibility for a different area. SeaWorld’s team covers an area that spans south-east Queensland and the northern New South Wales coast as far as Evans Head.
Tohorā<br>Licence is strictly for One Off, Non Excusive Use on the Guardian Australia. Tohora – Eubalaena australis (Southern Right Whale) expedition at Port Ross in the subantarctic Auckland Islands, New Zealand. Thursday 06 August 2020. Photograph Richard Robinson © 2020. Rights managed image. No Reproduction without prior written permission.
Their work generally begins from June, a few months after the first humpback whales are spotted off Sydney on their annual migration north, when the first reports trickle in of whales towing gear – sometimes many metres in length.
They will continue until November when the animals leave on their long journey back south, travelling 10,000km to the Antarctic.
Phillips says the worst material he has come across is nets that include chain, as it is impossible to cut away the material – though these are rare.
By far the most common entanglement are those from crab pots and the ropes that connect the cage on the seafloor to a float on the surface.
As whales don’t navigate by echolocation, they will pass through the area and catch rope as they go. Many will try to wriggle free by thrashing or rolling, but often this only binds the ropes tighter.
With time the material collects around the whale’s fluke – its tail – stopping it from hunting effectively as it drags the rope material over thousands of kilometres. One juvenile whale was spotted in Antarctic waters trailing gear in early January, having travelled down the South American coast.
“It’s like a ball and a chain,” Phillips says. “Imagine dragging that around while you’re swimming.
“And then imagine somebody continuously pulling at it because of the drag the water places on that equipment. These animals are so streamlined, they’re built to cut right through the water. Any drag makes it so much harder for them.
“It really is a slow death for the animals.”
‘They see us as part of the problem’
The first step in removing gear is counterintuitive. To cut it off, the team needs to slow the whale down by attaching floats or buoys to the netting it is trailing.
It is a tactic that echoes those used by whalers, and from the perspective of the whale the sound of an approaching engine is still cause for alarm.
“They’re not always happy we’re trying to help them, that’s for sure,” Phillips says. “They see us as part of the problem initially. And at times we have a very predator-prey relationship with the whale.
“He thinks we’re trying to hurt him, so he thinks we’re the predator.”
This relationship makes each rescue extremely dangerous. A spooked whale may attempt to roll, dive, thrash or smack its tail, and escort animals, such as adult whales protecting a calf, may attempt to fend off the approaching boats.
At least three deaths have been documented among whale rescuers worldwide. Among the earliest was Tom Smith, who died in 2003 while attempting to free a humpback whale in waters off Kaikoura in New Zealand. His body was never recovered.
Canadian whale rescue veteran Joe Howlett, 59, was killed in 2017 moments after successfully freeing an endangered northern right whale in the Gulf of St Lawrence.
Phillips says members of the public should never attempt their own rescue. Even if it does not end in tragedy, it often only makes things worse for the animal.
“Their hearts are in the right place, but if they don’t cut it all off it actually makes our job harder,” he says. “When they cut off some of the net, the whale will swim off quite nicely but unfortunately it’s still a death sentence.
“Any material around that fluke means the whale will end up succumbing.”
The effect of climate change
Dr Olaf Meynecke, a whale researcher at Griffith University and the Whales & Climate program – a collaborative research project between six universities – says climate change is already having an indirect impact on the number of entanglements.
“It’s the food source that drives everything in the whales’ lives, and they’re migrating for six months at a time each year. That requires a lot of energy,” Meynecke says.
“Their advantage is they can store energy in their blubber as fat, but that also means there’s a short amount of time to eat.”
Climate change is affecting the location and amount of available food.
Meynecke says other whale species have been pushing into waters close to humans, and it is expected the same is happening with humpbacks in Australia.
The most at-risk of entanglement are “overwintering” whales – usually young, non-breeding females that stay in Australian coastal waters through summer and end up trying to opportunistically feed near commercial fishing grounds.
Meynecke’s research aims to forecast how these changes will occur until 2050 by comparing whale movements today with those from hundreds of years ago.
Botanical Illustrator Lesley Elkan. The national herbarium of NSW is relocating to the Australian Botanic Gardens in Mount Annan in the new year with new facilities to help house over a million plant specimens which are currently housed at the Sydney Botanical Gardens site.
He says there are signs whale populations are already starting to arrive earlier than expected and are not always travelling as far north as they used to. If confirmed, there may be steps that can be taken to prevent more animals being lost.
But that would require coordination between governments, science, industry and the whale-watching public to create more centralised reporting systems, change fishing practices, introduce ropeless fishing gear and ban the use of material such as chain in nets.
This might seem a tall order, but Meynecke says the legacy of anti-whaling efforts in the past is a generational shift that has made humpback whales a sacrosanct part of Australian culture.
“It’s been a complete shift in society,” he says. “Our society has gone from ‘I appreciate whaling’ to ‘I appreciate taking photos of whales and paying for it’.
“No one in Australia – not one politician – would ever today come and say let’s kill the whales. This gives me great hope. It shows a capacity for change.”
This article by Royce Kurmelovs was first published by The Guardian on 29 January 2022. Lead Image: A fishing net caught on the tail of a whale. ‘It’s like a ball and a chain …. a slow death for the animals,’ Wayne Phillips says. Photograph: Todd Burrows.
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