WHALE RELEASE ......Back to gallery
call came through just after breakfast; “There is a whale stuck in fishing
nets off the lighthouse, can you pick up some rangers at Hollingsworth St. wharf
in half an hour.” Moments later we were loading “Marine Rescue Vessel
One” with an assortment of grey crates, newly stencilled, WHALE 1, 2,
& 3, along with the oxy tanks, dive belts, pikes and poles, eskies and haversacks
of the NSW Parks & Wildlife Whale Rescue Team…Rangers Leon , Amanda
, Carl and Mike .
”Howdy, I'm your skipper this morning, I'm called Ranger, no not Ranger Ranger, just Ranger”. It was corny but good to break the ice as some of the team had only just completed their initial training. There was some anxiousness before this their first Whale.
“We require passengers to wear these lifejackets,” I told them, “and stow your Akubras or they will blow off.” As I floored the throttles, our twin 300 horse power motors roared into life, first coaxing the 10 tonne vessel up onto the crest of its bow wave and then as the turbochargers cut in, accelerating right over the top. In seconds we were bounding along at over thirty knots, and four akubras were tumbling and gyrating in the turbulence of the stern sheets at the back of the boat.
We bashed through the emerald and spray of rollers on the bar and turned south for the sapphire of the deep water offshore. It was a very different day to that “call out” some years previously, to the mass stranding on Plomer beach. Then it was a bleak drizzle with a Sou” East chop to match that kept driving the two dozen pilot whales higher up the beach. The Wildlife Rangers and half the crew were in the water trying to coax the beasts out to sea.
Those were the days when we had the old rescue boat, the 6.5 metre yellow Kevlar catamaran before it capsized on that stormy bar rescue then sailed the ocean currents alone and unseen for fourteen months; her journey must have taken her out beyond the Tasman Sea up into the South Pacific and along the coast of New Guinea before being spat out again onto a beach in Northern Queensland, on her way home to Port Macquarie. She earned her affection on that day off Plomer beach with pilot whales skull dragged across the back deck and the twin outboards underwater and spluttering for breath as we ferried them three at a time back out into the bay.
Today however, was a crystal East Coast winters day with lazy patches of high cloud drifting on a warm westerly breeze, cormorants diving into the gently heaving swells and whales breeching on the horizon. Along with two rubber ducks we raced to the scene and heaved to 100 yards from the whale.
Carl and Mike paddled one of the rubber duckie inflatables close in to investigate. It was a fifty-foot humpback whale of about forty tons in weight. It was very entangled. It appeared to have fouled the lines of some fish traps and then barrel rolled as it sounded. Rather than breaking free it had wound all the rope, and the traps themselves, up from the deep where they lacerated the flukes of its tail. Several of the fish traps floats were still bobbing around. It moaned forlornly and from its blowhole periodically fired a blast of spume into the breeze. Carl paddled back, and now in his wetsuit, goatee beard and earring, he looked all the Greenpeace activist as we sat down to hatch a plan. The dangers were clear; one swipe of that tail would send all of us to the bottom.
plan was that Carl would paddle in with a grapnel hook attached to a line. As
he did so we would tie float after float onto the line. The second duckie would
drift in behind Carl ready to fire up its outboard and speed in to rescue him
if the whale turned nasty. When Carl was close enough he would heave the grapnel
into the tangle of ropes. The whale was expected to instantly sound, dragging
the deadweight of the line of floats. “Crown” would heave lines
to the ducks and tow them as we made chase to the whale and its tether. Minutes
or hours later the whale would eventually become exhausted enough to accept
someone climbing up onto its back to hack away the tangle.
The first part all went to plan. The grapnel hit the whales flank, it let out a roar like a wounded elephant, the float rope surged out with a hum, the sea around it became a cascade of white water, the second duckie raced in and dragged Carls duckie clear, ….but it didn’t sound. It went still and just moaned a deep vibration that rattled your eardrums.
pow-wow ensued. This time it was decided to drift in with a lance on the end
of a long pole. The safety duckie and “Crown” would stand in close.
When near enough they would saw the ropes away, one by one. Each time a rope
was touched was a repeat of the earlier grapnel plan; the whale roared, a storm
erupted and the safety duckie raced in to drag him clear of the flailing tail.
Carl would wait until all went quiet and then paddle back in to make another
cut. This continued for a couple of hours. All the while in the distance whales
had been occasionally breeching.
all hell broke loose, it started bellowing, even the Rangers said they had never
heard a sound like it before, the rubber duckies were tossed aside and it took
off with the line and floats cart wheeling across the wave tops. Around the
boats in a big circle it thrashed, with “Crown” rolling in its maelstrom
just as another couple of fifty footer humpbacks bowled in cheek to cheek right
on a collision course. A mountain of whale meat scraped the transom and their
wash swamped the back deck as they to spun hard a “port to make a great
arc around us. It was every man for himself now. We fired up “Crown”
to get out of there. For a mile, with the two interlopers bounding along on
our right, the casualty on the left and two duckies desperately clinging on
behind, we careered along in a race that would have done Captain Ahab proud.
Then all three sounded and disappeared. We pulled up and drifted. For twenty
minutes we watched and waited. All went quiet but for the slap of duckies hulls
rafted up to Crown. Their crews were exhausted. The atmosphere was tense. Now
somewhere below, those three beasts had shown us quite convincingly just how
puny we were.
One hundred yards to our left a glistening black fin surfaced, let out a mighty roar and shot a blast of spume high into the air. A float bobbed up beside it. Carl grimaced. Another pow-wow, and another plan, but it was foiled before it began. Before the lance was anywhere near the whale it slipped quietly under and disappeared. Twenty minutes later, right ahead of us the whale surfaced and announced itself. They got close enough to saw off another of the rope tangles before it again slid below the surface. These antics were repeated several more times until it was late in the afternoon. There is something very nerve racking about looking down into the inky depths where three creatures the size of semi-trailers are skulking, especially when one of them severely pissed off with you messing with them. It was decided that we had chanced our luck and that although some of the ensnaring ropes remained, the whale had drastically altered its behaviour and was now able to sound. It was time to call it a day, radio out an all ships securite watch and return at first light next day.
aerial reconnaissance and reports from ships picked up several pods of large
humpbacks moving north and none were seen that had a float attached. We guess
that it was able to shake free and continue its journey.