SAVING WHALES

I sold this story to Yankee Magazine in 1994. They never published it, so gave me back the rights to it. I am putting it here on this page, so that at least somebody gets to realize that lobster fishermen are not all a bunch of Captain Ahab types as the bark eaters might have us portrayed. SLW

In the early eighties, I worked as a lobster fisherman, commercial diver, photographer and just about anything else. During the summer months, I used my boat, the Viking, to run fishing parties while also working as part of a seining crew. Our labors consisted mostly of loading our nets (twine) into and out of dories, towing them to various coves in the coastal area, and waiting for the phone to ring. For the most part, waiting and watching comprised a majority of the work. If we caught fish, then we knew we would be making money. If a person calculated what a seiner earned, based on our hours, the numbers usually added up, roughly, to minimum wage. The owner of the seining equipment, Sonny Lehtinen, flew his plane, a Cessna 170, every evening to locate schools of fish along the shore of the mainland and the outlying islands. The school would have to stay in one place long enough for us to shut off their escape to deeper water. We hoped to find a quantity of herring large enough to make setting out the twine worthwhile. Even though Sonny had three crews of seiners who worked different areas up and down the coast, I was new in this business and we hadn't made a set this season. All of us were working in some other fishery to survive.

It was late afternoon on labor day, 1982. I had just returned from my last fishing party of the season. It had been a long day and most of it spent moving around from spot to spot in hopes of catching a good amount of codfish. I was happy to come home to relax and enjoy a hot meal. Nate Fuller, the man in charge of my seining crew, called every evening to fill me in on the herring situation. We hadn't taken any fish all season, and we knew if we didn't soon it would be what fishermen refer to as a "broker". The purse seiners were catching most of the herring before they could get inshore. The schools seldom reached coves and narrow areas of the coastline where we could catch them.

It was past our normal supper time, if there is any such thing as a normal supper time for a fisherman. Mary, my wife, had broiled some cod fillets brought in from the day's catch. Our four children had already eaten and were outside playing in what was left of the daylight. They would soon have to come in for the night.

As I was sitting down to eat, the phone rang. Mary answered it and then passed it to me. It was Nate. I hoped he would have some good news about herring schooling along the shore and that we might be setting out some twine tonight. I asked him if he had seen any fish.

Jokingly, he mentioned something about a "big one," going on to say that he had come upon a whale entangled in lobster gear. I paused to think that, having spent most of my life on, in, or under the ocean, I had little fear of most creatures associated with it. I told him if he ran me out there, I would go down and cut it loose. He asked me if I was serious about jumping into the water at night with an entangled whale. He was kidding, he knew very well I had done some crazy things in my life, and this was no different. We agreed to meet at the wharf and go out in my boat, the Viking. If he got to the dock first, he'd bring my boat in from the mooring.

At this point, my wife suggested that I call Valerie Rough, a noted expert in marine mammals, to invite her to come along, so I did. She lived nearby and I knew she would be able to get to the wharf without delaying our departure. She mentioned that a man from the National Marine Fisheries Service might like to go with us. She did and he agreed to meet us at the wharf as soon as he could make the trip down from Rockland. He would come along to make notes on the rescue attempt and to see if any of our methods might increase the danger to the entrapped animal. In past rescue attempts, whales have been drowned by ill planned operations. In most cases, the entrapped animals would not have survived anyway, but it seemed a worse fate that man was on the scene and unable to provide any meaningful assistance.

By the time I got my equipment together; it was nearly pitch dark and the overcast sky eliminated any possibility of moonlight.

I loaded the diving gear into my truck and drove to the Fishermen's Co-op on Spruce Head Island, our point of departure. Everyone who was going with us had arrived and Nate had brought my boat in from the mooring and had tied it alongside the Co-op's lobster car. Each of us grabbed an item and quickly had my gear on board. As we headed out of the harbor, I called Woody Post on the VHF radio. Woody, a local lobsterman, was already with the whale. He had been steaming to Spruce Head Island from his summer camp on Metinic Island and had seen the whale lying on the surface. I asked him for the bearings and then punched them into my Loran. There was no need to jog back and forth attempting to figure out just where we were going.

We left Spruce Head Harbor, and I gave the Viking a little more throttle. The Detroit Diesel increased its sound level, drowning out all but the most ambitious of conversations. The green beacon of Whitehead Light was soon astern and I extinguished all lights on board. We searched ahead as we passed the South Breaker bell off Whitehead, and all eyes strained to see the lights of Woody's boat glinting through the darkness. The ocean was glassy calm and the sky was pitch black. In most cases, from my experience, whenever there is no wind, calm seas, and overcast skies, it is a sure bet of bad weather brewing. However, in this situation, I welcomed the tradeoff.

One of our number finally spotted Woody's boat ahead. It appeared more like a miniature than anything real. The glassy calm of the ocean, the calm winds, and clear night air eliminated any perception of distance or depth. We arrived at our destination in a little less than an hour. Woody's boat was illuminated, to some degree, by a work light on the back of the wheelhouse.

Woody had a length of line, that was caught on the whale, in his pot hauler. He was trying to pull the whale gently to the surface and cut it loose. Our arrival may have startled the whale, for about the time we arrived on site the whale decided to sound. It bent the davit on Woody's pot hauler down close to the rail of the boat. He grabbed his knife and deftly cut the rope, avoiding damage to his gear.

Nate was at the helm of my boat throttling the engine back to an idle. I had donned my drysuit and my SCUBA gear was ready. Peter, Valerie's friend who had come along with us, had sharpened one of my knives to a wire edge, putting a sawtooth on the blade so it would cut through rope easily.

Nate operated the boat at a slow idle toward the whale. She was lying near the surface. (Note: After some conversation with whale experts in Maine, we drew the conclusion this was most likely a female. Male Minke whales do not come this far inshore, as a rule.) As the Viking slowly drifted closer to the whale, I donned my full­face mask, and climbed onto the stern platform. Nate turned the helm hard to starboard and killed the engine. This placed me quite close to the whale, which was now slightly below the surface. I grabbed my knife and flashlight in one hand, and eased off the stern diving platform. I didn't wear gloves because for some reason I felt the whale might be able to sense the warmth from my hands and sense I was there to help her.

Once I had entered the water, I immediately descended a few feet and started swimming toward the whale. Underwater about six feet, I directed my light ahead into the gloom searching for the animal and spotted her. She was a short distance ahead of me lying a few feet below the surface. The creature was watching me with of its cyclopean right eye. I swam to her slowly and reached out, my bare hand rubbing along her head near the hinge of her jaw. The skin felt smooth and slippery, much like a wet rubber boot. Through my face mask, I spoke to the whale much as one would talk to any other injured or trapped animal telling her she'd be all right. Three strands of pot warp were running through her mouth and around her head, then along the length of her body and around the tail. This fully grown twenty­five foot Minke whale had been swimming along towing three pairs of wire lobster traps. Nearly exhausted by now, she would not last much longer.

Being very careful not to touch her with the blade, I inserted the knife under the rope just back of her mouth and, with a single motion, cut upward through the rope. There were three strands of polypropylene pot warp threading the baleen cutting into the blubber at the back of her mouth. The damaged area at the jaw hinge was showing a white color; a pure white color that was about the color of lard.

I couldn't believe what happened next. After the rope was cut free from the right corner of the whale's mouth, I moved forward so that I was directly ahead of her mouth and said to her, "Open your mouth."

I repeated it several times and pulled gently on the severed strands of pot warp leading into her mouth. To my surprise she opened it and with one slow continuous pull, I was able to remove the rope from the baleen. Once it was free, she closed her mouth, relaxed and started sinking toward the bottom. I knew the water in this area of the bay was over a hundred feet deep. Had she had expired, or was she just totally exhausted? The second thought in my mind was, "How deep will she sink?"

At that moment she leveled off and seemed to slow her descent into the black depths. Was it possible that she was holding motionless to help me finish this desperate job? Perhaps I was giving too much credit to the intelligence of this animal, and my imagined rapport with her.

I quickly and smoothly swam back along the whale's body to cut the three remaining strands from around her tail. As I moved toward her flukes, I kept my hand on her body to insure she would know where I was. As before, I placed the knife under the rope while holding the rope away from her tail with two fingers from my left had. I was still holding the flashlight and was not eager to have it slip from my grasp. I made one vigorous upward slash with the knife, and the rope parted. Once she felt the rope give way, she gave a few gentle strokes of her tail, disappearing from my sight into the watery blackness.

I bled some air into my drysuit and floated easily to the surface, flashed my light at the boat, and Nate quickly maneuvered to take me back aboard. As I reached the surface, and before the sound of the revving engine obliterated other sounds, I heard the whale blow. Peter helped me climb over the stern and back aboard the Viking. Intuitively, Nate shut off the engine so we could listen for the Minke's blows. We heard her blow a few more times and each time the sound grew fainter as she moved down the channel and out of earshot. Hopefully, she would survive this experience. We didn't know if she had been badly injured, but hoped she would live and be swimming these seas for many years to come.

There was a strong feeling of achievement and camaraderie about the Viking among the entire group. We had lived an experience very few people have in their lives. It was an accomplishment to be able to help a creature as large as a whale out of a deadly situation. We all hoped we would have this opportunity again.

Except for the noise of the diesel engine, it was quiet aboard the Viking as we steamed back to Spruce Head. Each of us was caught up in our own thoughts of what had transpired this night. The warm and unique feelings we had were greater than any reward we could imagine.

The Minke would have soon become totally exhausted with those three pairs of wire lobster traps hanging from her tail, and would most certainly have drowned.

For years I had seen whales during my numerous trips on the ocean. Each time I sighted one I wanted to get closer and communicate somehow with one of them. Now I had had that chance. Given the intensity of the lobster fishing industry, the number of lobster traps and gillnets in use, I felt that something of this nature was most certain to happen again. I hoped I would have the opportunity to help again.

 

NOTE: Lobster fishermen use two types of rope on their traps. The rope that runs from the buoy is designed to sink. This helps to prevent it from being snagged by the propellers of boats during periods of slack water. About a third of the way to the trap this sink­rope is tied to polypropylene, which floats. This 'float-rope' serves to keep the bottom part of the warp from snagging on rocks. This eliminates the use of 'toggles' to float the pot-warp off the bottom. During slack tide, there is a loop of rope that may come nearly to the surface. This lays nearly parallel to the surface of the water. Apparently, this whale had been swimming with her mouth open gathering small sea creatures, and had the misfortune to catch three of these lines in her baleen before she was entrapped.

 

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The next opportunity came eleven years later.

I happened to be home on August 11, 1993. The scanner in my kitchen was tuned to marine VHF channel sixteen, the calling and distress frequency. I usually tune to this channel most of the year as I am a commercial diver and occasionally pick up some work as a result of problems arising on the water. On this particular day, I heard a lobster fisherman, Paul Wiegleb of Criehaven Island, as he called the Coast Guard from his boat, the Artful Dodger. He had come across a whale entangled with gill nets and lobster buoys some distance to the South of Big Green Island in Penobscot Bay. He said the whale was thrashing around and he could not get close enough to try to free it. I was familiar with the area and felt, if he could not successfully free the animal, I might be able to go out there and help. I asked my wife to keep an ear tuned to the scanner while I prepared my diving gear.

After getting my diving equipment loaded into my truck, I returned to the house to find a boat for transport to the whale. In the past Peter Ralston, of the Island Institute in Rockland, had offered me the use of their fast outboard equipped boat for use in situations such as this. Unfortunately, today, the boat was being used in another area. My last resort was to drive to Spruce Head Island and ask one of the fishermen to take me out there.

As I arrived at the dock Vince Pine, a lobsterman from Metinic Island, had just finished selling his catch and was about to leave on the return trip to the island. I told him of the situation, and asked for his help. He warned me that his boat, the Blue Heron was very slow, but he'd be glad to take me out to the area. At that point, I had no other options.

We made the trip in just under two hours. When we arrived on the scene, we could see there was little anyone in the boats could do to help. The whale did not come near the boats and when they tried to approach her, she thrashed about and tried to sound.

Woody Post, a fisherman from Metinic Island, had also come from Metinic Island. He was one of the men involved in the rescue of the Minke whale in 1982. Vince maneuvered alongside Woody's boat, the Curlew, and we asked Woody's teenage son, Larkin, to come aboard our boat. We needed the extra hand to help me with my gear. I handed Larkin my video camera and asked him to try to get some footage. Meanwhile, three Coast Guardsmen from Rockland Station had come out in an inflatable, and were standing by to observe.

This animal was a fully grown Humpback over forty feet in length and probably weighed more than twenty tons. The whale seemed quite nervous and, according to Paul, had earlier charged at the Artful Dodger.

I got into my diving gear and told Vince and Larkin that when they saw me wave an arm overhead, to come pick me up. Overboard I went. I swam around the front of the whale, approaching it from its right side. When I tried to work down along her head to get to the back of her mouth where the rope and nets went through, she kept turning and backing so I could not make headway. I saw the net was over the back of her head and was partially obstructing her blowhole. This certainly had to contribute to the state of near panic the poor creature was exhibiting. She threw her head and butted me with the right side of her jaw. I tried to keep a few feet from her so she would not hit me hard enough to knock the wind out of me. This could have had a negative effect on safety. I was talking to her and attempting to calm her down, but could sense the whale may not have trusted my intentions. I tried stroking the creature along the tubercles (small bumps containing hairy whiskers) on the underside of its mouth, hoping this might calm her and she might understand I was trying to help. Later, I was advised this might have been the wrong thing to do. Whales use their tubercles as sensors of sound and motion in the same way a cat uses its whiskers. They are very sensitive.

Because the whale did not allow me to move back along the side of its head to gain access to the jaw hinge, I could not cut the net free. We hadn't been able to help her from the boat, and now it didn't look as if I would be able to help her from the water either. The Humpback continued to back up until I was directly in front of her. I tried again to go down past her right side toward the back of the jaw. She watched me warily with her right eye.

Suddenly she slammed her massive left flipper down forcefully onto the surface of the water then repeated with the right just a few feet from my head. In my peripheral vision I caught a glimpse of the foaming water resulting from the blow. The sound of the flipper hitting the surface of the water a short distance from my head, was quite impressive. I got the message. I was not accomplishing anything, and I was possibly further upsetting the animal. The whale started swimming forward now and I was being pushed backward through the water by the front of its jaw. I waved my hand over my head in the prearranged signal to the men in the boat. When the boat approached, the whale backed off.

Once I was aboard the boat, the Humpback swam directly to the starboard side of the Blue Heron. It was as though a light had suddenly come on in her brain and she had figured out we were there to help her. She rose to the surface and lay there nearly motionless for a approximately thirty seconds. She repeated this once more. Vince grabbed his gaff, I picked up a serrated knife and we were able to remove nearly all the net and line except what was passing through its mouth. Her blowhole was now completely clear of the gillnet. Then she moved away from us and surfaced beside Woody's boat. He was able to remove most of the remaining rope hanging outside her mouth. It appeared the body and tail was completely clear of any entanglement.

The consensus was we had done all we could to help this whale. She was now on her own. My equipment was loaded into the Coast Guard's inflatable and they ran me back to Spruce Head Island. So closed another chapter in trying to help whales caught unintentionally off the Coast of Maine.

The opinion among the experts is that this whale most likely would not survive for long. The gillnet, we were unable to remove from its mouth, most likely would have kept it from swallowing its food. It would slowly starve. Additionally, she may have been weakened excessively from her struggle with the nets. We heard of no sightings of dead Humpbacks so we never knew the final story.

In conversations later with people allegedly expert at saving whales, I was advised that nobody with any brains jumps into the water with entangled whales.

Maybe.

My diving equipment is always ready and I am prepared to go at a moment's notice. I might be getting too old or too smart to take on ventures like this. If I don't do it, somebody will.

Maybe not.

END

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