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Encountering a whale entanglement – a Fisherman’s story

This blog was written by a creel fisherman operating off the west coast of Scotland and details a whale he was involved in disentangling several years ago. It is a great example of what and how the Scottish Entanglement Alliance (SEA) can learn from fishermen regarding the entanglement and disentanglement of large marine animals.


Encountering a whale entanglement – a Fisherman’s story 

I was once involved in releasing a whale from an entanglement situation. The animal was a humpback whale, tethered (anchored) to the seabed by the weight of creels. There were a few fishing boats in attendance but most did not know how to get the load off the animal so that it could surface. It was managing to get its blow hole clear but only just and was exhausted. The first vessel was looking for a surface rope to pull to help lift the whale up, but the action of pulling a surface rope caused the whale to get compressed as tension was added to the whole rope/whale/gear assembly, putting even more tension on the whale’s tail.

I have an unusual set up in my boat where I regularly get a fouled propeller. There is no skeg below my prop and rudder, so any rope passing under the boat gets sucked directly into the prop, usually my own rope that I am hauling at the time! The long and the short is that I am regularly tethered to the seabed by my propeller in much the same way as the whale was, and I’m guessing much the same way as many entangled animals are.

In order to release the whale that day we used the same technique that I use to free my vessel. I think that technique could be useful to be known, if it is already not being used as standard practice in entanglement rescues where the animal is tethered to the seabed.

On my own vessel when a rope is in the prop its well under the surface, and even my long boat hook won’t reach it. So, in order to get a hold of the rope that is tethering me to the sea bed, I get a length of rope about 20-30ft long with an eye at one end, and I attach a weight on it to the centre (that can slide). From the bow of the boat I then lower the weight into the water until I am just left with each end. Then I walk one end down each side of the boat so that the centre of the rope and weight pass right underneath (in a sort of “V” shape). Once I have walked the rope and weight aft until I’m at the stern and the rope with weight has passed completely under the boat, I take the end of the rope with the eye in it, pass the other end though and start pulling. This leaves me with one end of the rope, and in effect I have formed a lasso or noose which is now being tightened round the offending rope that is attached to my prop and tethering me to the seabed. I keep pulling until the noose has tightened all the way and I now have hold of the offending rope well below the surface, and in effect I have a hitch attached to it. I keep pulling the rope with the noose to the surface, which brings the fouled rope with it, allowing me to cut this and free myself from the seabed.

So when I came across a similar situation with the whale, we used a variation of this technique to get a hold of the rope underneath it. We used the same setup, a long rope with an eye at the end and a loose sliding weight attached to the middle. We took an end of the rope each between two boats and stretched the rope between us, with the weight holding the centre well under the surface. We then passed the whale, allowing the weighted section of the rope to pass underneath it. The two boats then came back together and the rope was passed back to one, which threaded this through the eye forming our noose which was now hitched to the ropes anchoring the whale. We were then able to pull on this to release the tension on the rope tethering the whale so that it could breathe more easily. With the entangling rope now level with/above the whale we could haul these to lift the whale’s tail, allowing us to clear all the fouled rope and check that there was no serious injury to the animal and that it was free of all gear. Once the whale was freed and it swam off, we were still left attached to the fishing gear, which was salvaged.

In 2015 fishermen off Skye encountered a similarly entangled humpback whale which they were able to free. Image credit: John and Gordon McKinnon

From this experience we learned that there is a relatively easy method to get a grip on a rope or other gear that is under the surface and tethering an animal. I don’t think it would be hard to modify this method so that it could be done by a single vessel which could use the same set up (i.e. a long rope with a sliding weight in the middle) but replace the second vessel with a buoy. This would allow a fishing or rescue vessel to release the tension on a tethered animal and save it from drowning whilst further assistance was being mobilised, and is a technique that could be used in a professional rescue. I appreciate this sounds quite complex but in reality it is an amazingly simple way of getting a hold of a rope underneath a floating object.

I used this technique just the other day when I got another rope in my prop and when I got home I saw your (SEA) posts about us all working together to mitigate/minimise entanglement issues, and wondered if you guys used or knew about this as an option to assist in entanglement situations and it’s great that we now know who to call if ever we find ourselves in a similar situation. I hope that the technique of getting a hold of a sub surface rope is of some use to you. – END –


Commenting on this Fisherman’s experience, Stephen Marsh, Operations Manager for BDMLR and a member of SEA, said “A major strength of this project is that now we are able to receive this sort of extremely useful feedback.  Very often by the time that BDMLR’s large Whale Disentanglement Team is called to an entangled whale, it has become so compromised that lines have become stuck in the baleen and/or tightly wrapped around the body, making the rescue even more difficult and potentially dangerous, so early action can prove invaluable. On a number of occasions, fishermen lifting gear has saved the day and we welcome detailed accounts of other successful releases at sea.  BDMLR are available 24 hours a day to discuss and advise on incidents and will mobilise the LWDT team when needed”.


SEA partners would like to thank this Fisherman for sharing his experience. We have been able to learn a great deal from this and hope other Fishermen will also find it useful. If you have a similar story that you would like to share with us, whether you were able to release an animal alive from your gear or you discovered an animal dead in this,  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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