Last September, in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Nova Scotia, the crew of the Pirate’s Cove Whale and Seabird Cruises noticed a humpback whale named Foggy trapped in loose fishing lines known as “ghost” gear. The lines encircled her body, tail, mouth, and blowhole, putting the whale in danger of drowning.
A captain at Pirate's Cove called the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, a local group that specializes in disentanglements—cutting whales free from fishing lines and nets. Within a few hours, the group arrived and disentangled Foggy. Once it did, another humpback whale named Grommet, who’d stayed near Foggy the whole time, “immediately took a deep dive and then just burst from the water in a full, spectacular breach," tour guide Chris Callaghan told CBC News.
The people at Pirate’s Cove have another reason to celebrate this week, because Foggy is back. The crew spotted her last Thursday. It was able to identify the whale by her hook-shaped fin.
"The second she dove and brought her tail out of the water, there was no doubt that it was Foggy. She looked great, she’s plump and healthy looking, and acting like a normal humpback," Callaghan told CBC News.
What happened to Foggy is all too common, and the whale watchers had good reason to fear for her survival.
Getting caught in fishing lines is the biggest danger to whales, dolphins, and porpoises, according to a World Wildlife Fund study, and entanglement kills nearly 1,000 marine mammals a day. Many of those killed are smaller animals, but a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report found that an average of 10 large whales, meaning fin whales, blue whales, humpback whales, and sperm whales, were caught in nets on the West Coast of the United States annually between 2000 and 2012. The actual number of trapped whales is probably higher, the report found.
Around the world abandoned fishing lines and ropes trap migrating whales. Scars found on right whales in the North Atlantic indicate that 72 percent of them have encountered floating fishing gear, according to the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass. Fishing lines not only trap and drown whales, but can also cause infections and interfere with feeding.
The job of freeing the whales falls to groups like the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, which saved Foggy. It’s risky and challenging because the whales can have lines stuck in their mouths or in difficult-to-reach places. If the whale is panicking or can still swim, the disentanglement gets even more complicated. Often, freeing a whale involves a process called kegging—attaching floats to the whale that make it difficult for the animal to dive and tire it out over time.
The Center for Coastal Studies has freed more than 200 whales and other large marine animals from ropes and nets since 1984.