VANCOUVER, B.C. - A new Fisheries unit formed to save marine mammals is boasting one of its first successes after rescuing an exhausted and distressed humpback whale in Knight Inlet on the central B.C. coast.
A prawn fishermen called in an alert Monday when the humpback became entangled in his trap lines.
Workers with the Department of Fisheries' Marine Mammal Response Network, the Canadian Coast Guard and several other Fisheries employees who were in the area sprang into action attempting to save the young whale.
The humpback is listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act, and Paul Cottrell, the acting marine mammal co-ordinator with the Department of Fisheries, credits the new network with saving the animal.
Within hours of hearing of the whale's troubles the network had flown in a response kit which included satellite-tag buoys and devices to cut the lines without hurting the whale.
Cottrell said they managed to cut away nine of 11 lines with prawn traps attached from around the whale before darkness forced them to abandon the operation.
Tuesday morning, Cottrell and another fisheries officer set out in a Zodiac boat several metres smaller than the 10-metre-long whale.
Just as they were giving up and turning back, they spotted the troubled whale.
The exhausted humpback had tired overnight and the rope had begun cutting into its mouth and flesh. Cottrell said they had no trouble getting right beside the animal to try and cut the lines.
"After some pulling it came right out from his mouth. It was just an unbelievable feeling," he laughed.
Cottrell said it was obvious the whale was pretty happy about it too.
"He kind of looked up at us for 10 to 15 seconds after we got it off and then he was gone like a shot."
"We are so lucky," he added.
Not all whales are that lucky, and that's exactly why Fisheries established the new marine mammal response network.
"There are animals with gear on them that you just can't get off and it's amazing how it just rubs through flesh and causes infection and problem for the animals." Cottrell said.
He said entanglements, strandings and collisions involving whales have become much more common and it's hoped the network will be able to save more whales.
The network encourages residents up and down the B.C. coast to report any findings of dead or distressed animals so the ones that need rescuing can be helped and the dead ones can be studied.
Of the 31 marine mammal species in B.C. waters, 13 are listed under the Species at Risk Act as endangered, threatened or of special concern.
Cottrell and other DFO officials happened to be in the area on Monday monitoring whale activity around the Robson Bight killer whale reserve.
Salvage crews were doing a delicate operation attempting to lift vehicles and other logging equipment from a barge that sank in August 2007.
The barge was carrying a container with 1,400 litres of hydraulic oil and a tanker truck loaded with 10,000 litres of diesel fuel.
Both the oil and the tanker truck have been recovered without incident.
The bight is well known as the area where killer whales rub their bodies on the rocks along the beach.
A spill could have been an environmental disaster for marine mammals there.