New Zealand rescuers fail in bid to cut entangled humpback whale free from rope, likely death

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

NZ rescuers fail to cut rope from entangled whale

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand rescuers Tuesday failed in a bid to cut free a humpback whale entangled in a heavy rope that officials said would likely cause its slow death.

Spotted close to North Island’s east coast by a fisherman on Monday, the large humpback had a heavy green nylon rope wrapped around both its head and tail, Department of Conservation area manager Jonathan Maxwell said.

Maxwell said rescuers attempted to use the “kegging” method, which involves people in boats snaring the whale to slowly tire the powerful mammal, before one boat moves in to cut away the entwined rope from both its head and tail using a curved knife on a long pole.

A helicopter crew located the whale in Doubtless Bay harbor on Tuesday and officials sent two boats to snag the whale’s rope with a grapnel hook and two long ropes fitted with buoys to slow it down.

One boat used a hook to snare the rope round the mammal’s tail late afternoon, but minutes later the hook broke lose and gathering gloom forced rescuers to suspend their bid, department spokeswoman Carolyn Smith said.

The rescue was called off as the operation needs at least two hours of daylight, she said. Officials plan to send an aircraft and two boats out Wednesday in a second attempt to free the mammal.

Such rescues were “dangerous undertakings” that required well-trained staff, Maxwell said.

Among the boats’ crew was a staffer experienced in whale rescue off Kaikoura on South Island — where migrating whales draw tens of thousands of whale-watching tourists each year.

Maxwell said Kaikoura staff had carried out 10 whale rescues in recent years, including eight tangled in crawfish pot ropes and buoys.

“Due to their inquisitive nature, it’s not uncommon for humpback whales to become entangled,” he said.

While the whale was unlikely to be at any immediate risk of drowning, Maxwell said the rope likely would be causing it distress and could cause injuries. It would also “impede the whale’s movement and ability to feed.”

This latest whale rescue comes only days after 74 pilot whales stranded in Spirits Bay in the New Zealand’s far north. Only 14 whales were saved after stranding survivors were driven an hour to Rarawa Beach to be refloated in calm sea conditions.

In August, some 58 pilot whales stranded on another northern beach and just nine of the pod survived their ordeal.

New Zealand has one of the world’s highest rates of whale strandings, mainly during their migrations to and from Antarctic waters, which begins around September.

Since 1840, the Department of Conservation has recorded more than 5,000 strandings of whales and dolphins around the New Zealand coast. Scientists have not been able to determine why whales become stranded.

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