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A whale of a time in Orkney and the far north east

Last week I returned to Orkney, visiting Scrabster on route and the far north-east coast of mainland Scotland to meet with more fishermen to discuss the marine life they encounter, their experiences of marine animal entanglements, hear their suggestions of why animals may become caught in fishing gear, and ways this could perhaps be prevented. In total I spoke with over 25 active creel fishermen, as well as several retired fishers, scallop divers and trawler men. As I have found elsewhere around the coast, all were very friendly and talked passionately about their life at sea and the wildlife they work alongside. They also offered some very unique insights in to entanglements, and what factors may make these incidents more or less likely to occur in particular areas. As well as discussing entanglements, much time was also spent debating other concerns fishermen have, for example our seas becoming busier and the challenges associated with conflicting interests and industries, regulation, climate change and Brexit to name a few. The questionnaires I use to interview fishermen are designed to take approximately 10 minutes to complete, but several have now run in to two or three hours, several cups of tea and the occasional dram after particularly cold rough days at sea! These discussions are always incredibly interesting and valuable to my own and the other SEA partner’s wider understanding of the history and intricacies of the Scottish inshore fishing industry and the immense value of it.


(1) A particularly nosy young minke whale checking out an Orcadian trawler. (2) Sunrise over Scrabster harbour. (3) John O’Groats.


While in Orkney, following recommendations by various fishermen I’d met on my previous visit, I met a scallop diver called Magnus who in 2012 while skippering a wildlife watching trip, released a humpback whale that had become entangled in lost fishing gear.

The 40ft animal was in approximately 20m of water and was entangled in an old creel bundle. A single line was caught through the mouth which had then twisted around itself under the whale’s jaw. Magnus suspected the animal had dragged the gear for some time before becoming anchored on rocky ground where this snagged.

Magnus recognised, through previous experiences observing these animals and from watching wildlife documentaries, that this whale was in distress, thrashing it’s tail in an unusual fashion but staying in the same spot.

The unusual behaviour displayed by the humpback whale, which alerted Magnus to the fact that something may be wrong. Signs to look for which may indicate an entanglement include buoys and lines moving, unusually clumped near, or trailing behind an animal, and/or an animal at the surface that is not moving, or appears to be anchored to one spot, as was the case with this humpback whale.


After taking a closer look, he donned his scuba gear and entered the water. Aware of the size and strength of the animal he cautiously approached it. He said that initially the animal tried to move away from him and so he kept his distance, but after a while the animal seemed to understand why Magnus was in the water and what he was trying to do. Without touching the whale, Magnus cut the rope at one side of the mouth (approximately 6ft below the jaw), which then under the weight of the gear, flossed through the mouth releasing the animal, which swam off gear free and with only minor visible wounds.

While Magnus’ actions likely saved the life of this animal, and proves how vital fishermen’s skills and knowledge of their local waters and the marine life that inhabit them, attempting to disentangle an animal can put you and the animal in a very dangerous position. Whales care extremely powerful and unpredictable wild animals, which when entangled are also likely to be panicked.

If you encounter an entangled marine animal (live or dead), PLEASE DO NOT ENTER THE WATER! Instead please contact SEA on 01463 243030 or 07393 798153 (outside office hours, this will connect you directly to the SEA project co-ordinator Ellie MacLennan), who will be able to offer advice,  guidance and if required, dispatch a support vessel and specially trained disentanglement team. More information on what to do if you encounter an entangled marine animal can be found here:

During entanglement incidents such as the one detailed above, the skills and expertise fishermen have in boat handling and rope work, together with their knowledge of their gear and local seascape are vital to ensure that they, their boat, crew and gear are safe and the animal in question is released unharmed. Receiving this sort of extremely useful information from the fishing community is a major strength of this SEA project and we welcome detailed accounts of other successful releases at sea. As the SEA project progresses, fishermen will be invited to participate in training and knowledge exchange workshops in photographing live entangled marine animals and sampling those that have been discovered dead. This will enable SEA partners to build our knowledge of how animals become entangled, assist in future rescue attempts and gear recovery, and improve our ability to assess the impacts of other threats including chemical pollutants, disease, plastic waste and underwater noise. These events will also provide a platform for fisherman-led discussions and exchange of ideas on what potential approaches could be taken to minimise the risk of entanglements occurring which are practical, flexible, and do not interfere with or disrupt fishing activity.

If you are a creel fisherman and would be willing to participate in a short anonymous interview, or you have any stories or ideas relating to marine animal entanglement please contact Ellie MacLennan (SEA project co-ordinator) at [email protected] or on 07393 798153. Any information shared will be treated sensitively, positively and confidentially.



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