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Humpback whale successfully disentangled in Orkney

A specially trained group of volunteers from British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR, a SEA project partner) were mobilised to assist a humpback whale entangled in fishing gear in Orkney on Monday 2nd October. The report was received from a local fisherman who discovered the animal anchored in his fishing ropes and did absolutely the right thing by asking for help to rescue it as safely as possible.

Entanglements are a global concern that can occur wherever wildlife and fishing activities overlap. These incidents can impair an animal’s ability to breath, feed, swim and reproduce, are distressing and potentially dangerous for those discovering them, and can also result in significant financial losses for fishermen through damaged or lost gear. BDMLR’s Large Whale Disentanglement Team (LWDT) is comprised of volunteers who have gone through extensive training in how to approach stricken animals and use specialist equipment to free them from any ropes netting or other materials that they may be caught in. These rescue attempts can be extremely dangerous, and lives have been lost in the past in other countries, so BDMLR have been working to raise awareness of the team’s existence, skills and availability in recent years.

Using underwater cameras the team were able to assess the configuration of the entanglement. This allowed them to identify which lines to cut and where, and ensure all gear was removed safely and efficiently from the animal.


In this instance, volunteers travelled overnight from Glasgow, Dundee, Moray and Ullapool to Kirkwall, and then on to the island of Westray to meet with local BDMLR team members. The fishermen who reported the entanglement remained on hand to assist, and along with support from local fish farm, boat club and chartered vessels, the disentanglement team were able to approach the whale in their specialised RIB to first assess the animal and identify the entanglement configuration. Once a plan had been made on which cuts needed to be made and where, the team returned to the animal, which remained relatively calm throughout. They then began cutting and removing all the entangling lines that were twisted around the tail. The whale was anchored by its tail to the seabed, but using specially designed cutting tools, they were able to quickly free the animal before daylight faded. Once the animal had been freed, the local Westray community welcomed the team safely back to shore and provided overnight accommodation for the whole team.


Despite worsening conditions, the BDMLR team were able to approach the stricken whale and using specialist equipment, remove the entangling gear without distressing the animal further.  


Entanglement in fishing lines and nets is a growing concern globally and is considered by many to be the most significant welfare threat to marine mammals of our time. However, it is important to remember that no entanglement is deliberate, and more often than not it is fishermen who are more upset and affected by these incidents than anyone. It is also important to remember fishermen often play a vital role in successfully releasing these animals, by reporting incidents and providing assistance to rescue teams, as was the case here.

BDMLR are part of the SEA collaboration which was initiated in 2018 after the inshore creel sector raised concerns over entanglement within their industry. To date over 150 creel fishermen have contributed to SEA’s work by sharing information on their marine wildlife encounters, experiences of entanglement, and their ideas of ways to reduce the risks of these incidents occurring in the future. This is already leading to some exciting developments which would not be possible without the industry’s continued support and participation working alongside conservation organisations.

The team celebrating another successful disentanglement 🙂 



We would like to extend our sincerest thanks to all BDMLR team members, local fishermen, residents and businesses for all their extraordinary efforts in making this rescue possible. The success also owes a number of thanks to people who gave up time, transport, food and even beds, including: Andy MakinCooke Aquaculture Scotland Ltd, Brian Kent,Harry, John and Eileen, Peter Banczyk, Sandy and Willy of Westside Manse, Karen and Andy of the Old Mase, Tina of Biggin and Kim of Balaclava for providing very welcome accomodation, and Westray in general for being so welcoming. Special thanks to Northerly Marine Services for assistance with transport for the third time this year. Finally and no means least, our medics Teri, Emma and Imogen along with our LWDT members James, Noel, David, Boonie and Smudger!

If you are a creel fisherman and you encounter an entangled animal in your gear, please report this to the SEA project. If you would like to learn more about SEA’s work or get involved in this, please contact the SEA project coordinator Ellie MacLennan on 01463 246048, 07393 798153 or at [email protected]. Any information you choose to share will be treated positively, sensitively and confidentially.

Photos: Noel Hawkins and Teri Charlton.


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