CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, New Brunswick — It has been a busy few weeks for the five-man Whale Rescue Team on the island.
Since Sept. 6, the Canadian team has responded to three reports of whales either caught in fishing weirs or appearing to be entangled in gear.
“That’s more calls than we’ve had in the past two years,” Mackie Green, a team member, said Tuesday. He said there is so much whale activity in and around Head Harbour Passage — which is between Campobello Island, Deer Island and the coast of Maine — that he expects calls to continue coming in.
“There are still humpbacks in [Head Harbour Passage], and yesterday we saw 10 finbacks off the lighthouse,” he said.
The rescue team acts like a volunteer fire department for whale emergencies. They are trained by the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., and have an agreement with the U.S. to respond to calls along the northernmost coast of Maine. Each team member is equipped with a pager to alert them of an emergency situation.
“We handle from the Bay of Fundy down the Maine coast,” Green said. “We are also part of the Atlantic Large Whale Disengaging Network which stretches from Florida to the Maritimes.”
On Sept. 10, the team was called to deal with a finback whale tangled in ropes off the lighthouse.
“He was dragging about 200 feet of rope,” Green said. The team cut most of that off but about 60 feet of rope and two white buoys remained tangled on the whale.
“We ‘keg’ them,” Green said. “We take about five large orange balloons and attach them to the tangled gear. This makes it hard for him to submerge and it slows him down and tires him out. It also marks him so we can spot him easily.”
Green said this could be a long, drawn out process but eventually the whale will stay on the surface long enough for the team to cut the debris away.
“It can take days until we can get close enough to get most of the rope off,” he said.
The most recent call on Sept. 11 involved a humpback caught in a fishing weir off White Island, about two miles from Head Harbour Light.
“It was chasing the herring and went into the weir,” Green said.
The weirs are in place for herring fishermen and consist of a circle of wooden poles encased in netting.
“The opening in the weir is funnel-shaped,” Green said. “He got in and got turned around and just kept circling in there.”
Green said at least two to three whales become disoriented in weirs each summer and that most find their own way out.
“He was not entangled,” Green said. “We were checking him day and night and he didn’t seem stressed.” The fisherman who owns the weir dropped the nets to make it easier for the whale to leave.
The humpback was discovered in the weir on Friday, Sept. 11, and was gone when the weir was checked early Sunday morning. “He made his own hole and took down some of the tops of the poles,” Green said.
On Sept. 6, the team responded to a report that a humpback whale was entangled in fishing gear in Boot Cove, near Cutler. “The whale appeared lethargic but definitely wasn’t tangled. He appeared all played out, possibly from disentangling himself,” Green said.
Green said the rescue team has been trained and in place since 2002 and has saved 22 or 23 whales in that time. He said all the team’s work is done from inside the boats. They do not enter the water.
“It really is amazing,” he said. “You just cannot believe how big the whales are until you are close enough to handle them.”