West Coast searching for entangled humpback whale near Tofino

West Coast boaters are urged to join the search for an entangled humpback whale last seen off the coast of Tofino on Sunday.

Dr. Jim Darling of the Strawberry Isle Research Society spotted the whale Sunday morning and he, along with local whale watching vessels, stayed with the animal until Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and Coast Guard officials arrived at the scene.

“Jim (Darling) was out doing research and came across this humpback that has just a terrible entanglement,” DFO marine mammals coordinator Paul Cottrell told the Westerly.

“The whale watching community was awesome; they kept their eye on the whale which is key.”

The community’s efforts allowed Cottrell’s team to locate the animal, which he said was in significant distress.

 â€œIt’s really in tough shape, it’s got a lot of rope around it and its right pectoral fin is almost off,” he said adding, “The dorsal side has got a significant gouge out of it.”

With no visual trailing or gear to grapple onto, Cottrell was unsure his team would be able to assist the whale but a Hail Mary rang true.

“I was surprised we were able to grapple on,” he said. “We gave it a shot and luckily one of the grapples that I threw went right in the exact location and sank underneath the animal and hooked onto this huge rope ball.”

Whales cannot be tranquilized because they could drown so the team worked for over two hours trying to tire the whale out, but just as the crew was about six metres away from the animal the grapple line broke, according to Cottrell.

“The animal was pulling us into the open ocean,” he said.  “Unfortunately our working line grapple broke where it was attached to the whale so we lost that connection and because it was getting too dark and too dangerous to continue trying to grapple it back we had to break it off Sunday evening.”

Since this first effort, the West Coast has been assisting DFO and the Coast Guard search for the whale.

“The whole community has been great trying to relocate this whale so we’d be able to reengage,” Cottrell said.

“One good thing that happened with our efforts is the gear that’s on the animal, this huge rope ball, has adjusted so it’s now more visible on the side of the animal.”

He added the rope’s repositioning also means a second grappling attempt would be easier.

Cottrell flew with Atleo Air this week in search of the whale and the whale watching community has kept an eye out, as has the Strawberry Isle Research Society.

Cottrell said barnacles on the rope suggest the whale has been entangled for some time and will likely not survive if not found.

“Given the nature of the entanglement, it’s almost certainly lethal. This animal is not going to swim away from this entanglement because it’s right into the blubber,” he said.

“It’s not in good shape at all.”

He is grateful for the West Coast’s willingness to assist.

 â€œIt really helps when you have all these eyes and ears in Tofino that are so keen and looking out for this animal so hopefully we find him,” he said. “We’re good to go as soon as we get the word that he’s around.”

Anyone who sees the whale is urged to report the sighting to 1-800-465-4336.

Boaters are advised to stay a safe distance from the animal but keep their eyes on it until DFO arrive.

“We will do our best to get there as soon as possible to hopefully finish the job and allow this guy to live on,” Cottrell said.  

reporter@westerlynews.ca