For decades now, marine biologists, in cooperation with fishermen and wildlife conservationists worldwide, have taken up the highly dangerous task of rescuing humpback whales and other large and endangered sea mammals that have become entangled in commercial fishing nets and other man-made debris at sea. This poses a two-pronged survival scenario: a rescue team deploying on a small boat on one end of the equation, and that team being dwarfed by the enormous and frightened animals fighting for their lives in the ocean on the other. Having the training and specially selected tools to increase your chances for success in such a fluid scenario can absolutely make or break the rescue effort and be a deciding factor in whether or not the entire crew makes it home safely.

So what unique survival elements do whale rescue teams face? And what tools do they take with them to sea when they are tasked with rescuing these 45-ton goliaths of the deep? To find out, I spoke with industry specialists, including Doug Coughran, senior wildlife officer of marine operations with the Department of Parks and Wildlife, which protects and conserves the natural environment on behalf of the people of Western Australia.

Wild Emergency

In describing what types of materials marine animals most often become entangled in during his experience with the organization, Coughran said, “By far, most involve commercial lobster fishing gear, and nylon barrier knot nets on the west coast of Australia.”

When it comes to removing such snares from an animal at sea, and how important having the proper tools for that job are, he said that “the right tools minimize the time the team is in close proximity within the kill zone of a whale, and they provide the capacity to cut [the lines] with minimal time and effort.”

Like all environments and survival situations that involve wildlife, understanding the animal(s) you’re going to encounter is essential. “The key is to maintain a healthy respect for working around wild, large and powerful animals while having a fundamental understanding of their survival strategies and survival behavior to perceived threats,” added Coughran.

Commenting on the environmental factors at sea, and the unpredictability of a large animal in distress and how that plays into selecting specialized tools, he elaborated, “Disentangling whales is a very dangerous task that should not be undertaken without appropriate training, equipment, incident management structures and resources. Even with appropriate precautions, dealing with large, dangerous animals is never easy, especially when you consider variables such as how tightly they’re entangled, the sea, shifting tides and weather.”

Wayne Ledwell, director of the Newfoundland and Labradour-based non-profit group Whale Release and Strandings, also echoed this sentiment, stating that “the unpredictability of the animals when working up close with them is high. They are stressed and hurt and want to be free swimming.” Ledwell added that these highly trained and experienced professional rescue teams stay in their rescue craft and never get in the water while working with whales. “It’s too dangerous,” he noted. “Well-intentioned, untrained people have been killed while trying to disentangle large whales. They don’t understand that those are wild, extremely large, unpredictable animals that for the most part do not know nor care that you are trying to help them.”

Ledwell also noted that civilians often underestimate the task of disentangling a large animal in the water, as what you can see on the surface only accounts for a small percentage of the animal’s total overall mass and power.

Rescue Steel

Because of these rocking, rolling and generally unpredictable conditions at sea, including the danger that comes with approaching a large, distressed marine animal, a good amount of design consideration seems to have gone into the selection of specialty marine survival gear like the Spyderco Whale Rescue Blade, which is crafted to expedite rescues while minimizing injury to the operators and animals. When such a critical incident is unfolding at sea and your life truly depends on your gear, every bit of this experience and every piece of the tool kit you have on hand counts.

With an edged tool or blade in such volatile marine conditions, slips, trips and accidental punctures are very much a possibility, putting both the operator and the animal at risk. These factors all came into consideration as Coughran sought out a design partner to craft a specialized whale rescue blade, and he found what he was looking for in specialty tool designer Spyderco.

When asked about the design process behind the Whale Rescue Blade, Spyderco’s Kristi Hunter recalled, “Doug contacted us for assistance with producing a blade designed for his team by Jim Steele. Jim and Sal Glesser (the founder/owner of Spyderco) agreed that a modified hawkbill blade would perform best for the pull cuts so commonly performed during the rescue operations of entangled whales. Jim knew, and we agreed, that Spyderco’s serration pattern (commonly referred to as a Spyder-Edge) would be the most effective to ensure the ability to perform quick cuts under extremely dangerous circumstances. The blunt, rounded tip of the blade allows it to be maneuvered under tangled lines, preventing further injury to the whale.” Spyderco’s current Whale Rescue Blade is made using H-1 steel, which gives it the added benefit of being completely impervious to rust.

“Basically, we try and control the entangled whale, minimize the time we are in the kill zone and cut it free as quickly as possible. That’s where the Spyderco edge does its share of the work,” said Coughran. “It’s a reliable, very efficient blade, cutting quickly through difficult ropes and allowing the rescue crew to be in and out as quickly as possible before the whale decides to have a go at us.”

Saviors at Sea

  • The objective of marine animal rescue agencies is to conserve biodiversity.
  • Rescue teams also attempt to save fishing gear to the extent possible during a disentanglement, and work closely with fishermen in rescue efforts.
  • Oftentimes, such rescue efforts will include some level of research work on marine animals, such as tagging and tracking them for migration patterns.
  • In 1991, Whale Release and Strandings reported 120 reported humpback whale entanglements.
  • Civilians often see an entangled whale and attempt to cut them free of the debris they can see, which includes the marker balloons. Removing this makes it more difficult for professionals to relocate the animal again, taking away the only chance the animal has at survival.
  • Rescue agencies save a wide variety of marine animals from entanglement, including the leatherback and basking shark.
  • The West Coast humpback whale population is now estimated to be more than 30,000. This is a significant recovery. When commercial humpback whaling ended in 1963, the population was less than 500.

For More Information

Spyderco; 800-525-7770

Whale Release and Strandings; 888-895-3003

This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Fall 2015 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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