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How do you train to disentangle large whales?

This blog was written by Ellie MacLennan, SEA project co-ordinator and member of the UK Large Whale Disentanglement Team (LWDT).

Two weeks ago the Scottish contingent of the UK Large Whale Disentanglement Team (LWDT) met in Findhorn for a three-day refresher training course. The team, established in 2007 by British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) currently has approximately 20 individuals trained across four levels, and is the only team of its kind in Europe. The team meets throughout the year to practice skills in boat handling, equipment use, and different entanglement scenarios, to ensure that we are able to respond as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible to reports of whales and other large marine animals tangled in fishing gear. The team is on standby 24/7 and is  currently deployed in the Forth following reports from a concerned commercial fisherman about a free-swimming humpback whale potentially entangled in rope.

The team consists of a mix of men and women across the country who are all volunteers and come from a range of backgrounds. Our team leaders Simon and Boonie have, between them, decades of experience working at sea as a skipper and offshore rope access technician. Both are also crew members with the Moray Inshore Rescue Organisation (MIRO). The other team members include a mechanic, a mechanical engineer, an ex-fisherman, a skipper, a commercial diver, a marine ecologist, a teacher, a tree surgeon and a firefighter, all of whom bring a unique set of skills and practical ability to the team.   The weekend training consisted of a mix of classroom and boat-based sessions, and as always the training pushed us both mentally and physically, and tested our ability to work as a team in challenging conditions to ensure that in a real-life entanglement scenario, we were able to keep our crew safe, free the animal in distress, and recover and return the entangling gear with minimal damage.

It is essential that each individual entanglement case is fully assessed prior to attempting a disentanglement, including the species concerned and the configuration and type of entangling gear. This guarantees as far as possible that the team can approach the animal safely, and free it with as few cuts as possible to ensure all of the entangling gear is removed with minimal damage, which can then be collected and returned to it’s owner. Entanglement sketch: Scott Landry CCS

The weekend began with a classroom-based session, to review the most recent entanglement cases, walk through different potential entanglement response scenarios on dry land, and give everyone a chance to discuss their strengths, weaknesses and what they’d like to achieve from the training. This was also an opportunity to review and re-familiarise ourselves with the boat (a specially fabricated RIB) and the disentanglement kit, as it is vital that each team member is fully aware of and capable of assembling, maintaining and using this.


The LWDT kit consists of a series of lines, poles and attachments (for fixing knives to depending on the entangling gear), kegging buoys, knives and other cutting tools, and PPE.  This kit also includes a telemetry buoy which can be attached to an animal to track it’s movements if a disentanglement cannot be completed in one day or for example, has to be abandoned due to light and/or sea conditions. 

Once out on the water for the remainder of the weekend, we were well and truly put through our paces! among other things such as practising boat and tiller handling, we worked on perfecting a technique for disentangling free-swimming large whales that was first developed in 1984 in Cape Cod. The technique is known as ‘kegging’ and is a modification of a practise used by 19th century whalers who would attach kegs (barrels or logs) to the harpoon line in order to slow the whale down. BDMLR now utilise a similar technique for entangled free swimming large whales at risk from potentially life threatening entanglements, by attaching a control line to an existing line tailing from an entangled animal, which allows responders to safely work with and around the animal. Obviously we can’t train using live entangled animals (!) and so we practise using a RIB trailing lines and/or netting to simulate the types of gear an entangled animal may be caught in and towing. The RIB skipper will then manoeuvre at a speed similar to that of a free-swimming whale, and in a way a distressed animal may move through the water. It is then up to the team, spread across two boats (one with the kegging and cutting team of three, and one with the support team of three whose job it is to keep pace with the animal and communicate and support the cutting team by prepping kit.


On the water practising kegging techniques and line cutting.


A selection of the cutting tools used by the LWDT.

As a partner in the SEA project, a hot topic of conversation at this training meet was how the LWDT team can improve their relationship with the Scottish fishing community, to encourage better reporting of entanglements, positively engage with and involve fishers, and start to build a network of people around the coast capable of  responding to and assisting in disentanglement attempts. The LWDT is on call 24/7 but the geography of Scotland can be a limiting factor to the team getting to various locations quickly, and so the more people we can have around the coast able to assist in a response who have access to boats, additional kit that might be useful, and with the skills that fishermen have (local knowledge, navigation and boat handling skills, the ability to think on their feet, work efficiently in challenging conditions, and practically minded) the better. By developing a network with fishermen at the heart of it, we hope that as a team the LWDT can facilitate better  knowledge exchange, and the development of solid trusting relationships with the Scottish fishing community based on mutual interest and respect.

It is the fishermen are out on the water all the time, they know their gear and their waters better than anyone else, and they also know well and care very much about the marine life they work alongside, and we rely on them for reports of entanglements. We have already learned a huge amount from Scottish fishermen regarding entanglements, for example please see previous blog post ‘Encountering a whale entanglement – a Fisherman’s story’ which is a great example of the invaluable ways in which fishermen are already assisting in the rescue of large whales around the Scottish coast.

SEA do not recommend that fishermen attempt to disentangle animals themselves. Whales in distress are very powerful and dangerous animals, capable of doing significant damage to boats, and threatening lives. Our LWDT have had the appropriate training and carry the necessary PPE to tackle these. However fishermen can and do provide vital assistance to rescue attempts for example by tracking entangled animals, offering advice and local knowledge, moving and lifting fishing gear, and documenting the process with photos and video footage. If you are a fisherman and you encounter a marine animal entanglement while at sea in your or another’s gear, please call this in to the Scottish Entanglement Alliance and BDMLR’s Large Whale Disentanglement Team on 01463 798153, or 07393 798153 who will be able to offer any assistance that is requested and required. Any information you share will be treated positively, sensitively and in confidence.

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