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A whale of a rescue tale for South Surrey expert

South Surrey’s Paul Cottrell has no doubt a humpback whale tangled in a gillnet would have died had recent rescue efforts failed.
Crews work to disentangle a humpback whale from a gillnet Friday. South Surrey’s Paul Cottrell was among a team assembled to locate and free the mammal after it was spotted in a channel near Kitimat.

South Surrey’s Paul Cottrell has no doubt what would have happened to a humpback whale had a recent effort to untangle it from a gillnet not been successful.

It would have died, the fisheries official said Monday, a day after returning from the rescue.

“This animal would likely definitely have succumbed,” Cottrell said. “The animal had been entangled for quite a while. The lead line was digging right into the flesh. The head was fully engulfed with mesh.

“It’s the worst entangled whale I’ve had to deal with.”

Cottrell, who is regional marine mammal co-ordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, was tasked to an area near Kitimat Friday morning, after whale researchers spotted the distressed 25- to 30-foot juvenile in Ursula Channel, near Gill Island, the day before.

When he arrived, Cottrell learned efforts to track the whale overnight were complicated after the mammal met up with about four other humpbacks. In the dark, it was hard to know which humpback to follow, he said.

Fortunately, he and others who joined the search in the morning were able to locate the whale after about four hours of combing the waters in a grid pattern. Along the way, Cottrell’s team alone encountered 15 other humpbacks, he noted.

The tangled leviathan was found around 2 p.m., and a careful operation to free it got underway. The process – attaching to the line, and slowly moving closer to the whale, cutting the gear off along the way – took about seven hours, Cottrell said. The first step alone took a couple hours.

“We really took our time… moving up the gear and cutting it off over time, and then eventually getting right up close to the whale and then being able to cut (the line) with specialized tools right off the animal.”

Key to the operation’s success was tiring the whale out first, to enable a safe approach, Cottrell said, noting his team was “pretty darn happy” with the outcome.

The operation – the third of its kind for Cottrell – was the second successful whale disentanglement in B.C. waters this month. Another whale was rescued near Tofino about two weeks ago. Cottrell is hopeful a third whale spotted sporadically since July 31 in the southern Georgia Strait with crab line attached to it will soon be located and freed.

He encouraged anyone who spots the whale – or any other distressed, sick, injured or dead marine mammal – to call the 24-hour Marine Mammal Incident Reporting Hotline, at 1-800-465-4336.



Tracy Holmes

About the Author: Tracy Holmes

Tracy Holmes has been a reporter with Peace Arch News since 1997.
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