Disentanglement of a Humpback Whale near Anticosti Island

On July 18, 2001 local scallop fishermen, aboard the "Grand Makashti" working along the north coast of Anticosti Island, called the research station in mid afternoon. They reported having approached a humpback whale that was entangled in fishing gear. The humpback whale was bridled through the mouth by one line, had two large buoys - typically used as floats by fishermen - attached near the blow holes, and several other lines trailed behind, including one to about 90m astern. The whale's ability to dive was impeded by the floats and the line wrapped tightly around its head tightened noticeably each time it the whale breathed. The rope caught in its mouth was most likely affecting its ability to feed, causing it further stress.

The fishermen grabbed the long trailing line, tethered the whale to their boat, and made several attempts to free the whale. During the first two attempts the whale reacting energetically and the crew was forced to cut the line to avoid damage to the whale and their vessel. In order to cut a whale free it is best to immobilize it as much as possible. While the whale was tethered a second time it breached and the crew cut the line instantly. By the third attempt the line was much shorter and more difficult to grab. The crew was again able to hook on to the line and draw the exhausted whale tightly along side their vessel, long enough to the lines on its head and free the whale. Once free of its bonds the whale dove and seemed to be doing well.

The research station boats were far to the west at this time and though the field team raced towards the whale's position, they where never able to find it in order to identify the individual. Unfortunately no one aboard the fishing vessel had a camera and so there is no record of this animal, though it may be a known whale from past seasons. And no humpback whale carrying fresh scars from an entanglement was sighted during the remainder of the season.

Freeing a large whale from fishing gear at sea remains a delicate and dangerous endeavor. The crew of the "Grand Makashti" had no such experience and performed a remarkable piece of work. We applaud and thank the crew for their selfless effort in freeing this humpback, which most likely would have died from its unfortunate encounter with fishing gear.

In September we learned that this humpback whale had become entangled about 8km north of the Gaspé coast the day before the "Grand Makashti" spotted it along Anticosti Island. The fishing gear was determined to be a commonly used bottom fixed long-line about 200m long.