Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Heartbreaking Decision, Part I
By Michael


Here I am trying to calm myself down, to breath slowly.
The whale could present only a small portion of its body
above water because of the netting. Seeing the entire
whale underwater was overwhelming and made me
feel tiny and vulnerable.
Three-and-a-half hours into the new year, Windy woke up, started the engine, raised the anchor, and drove us out of the anchorage off Chacala while we all slept. By late afternoon, Del Viento was about 50 miles north, under sail, just abeam Isla Isabela. We tacked and headed for the anchorage, about four miles distant. The autopilot was on and we were all up near the bow. I saw it first.

“Wow! Whale! Strait ahead! Wait, we’re gonna hit it!”
The dark body of a whale was about 25 yards in front of us. I sprinted back to the cockpit to disengage the autopilot and steer us around it. It looked like the top of a submerged Boeing fuselage. Windy came back to say it might be dead. Then it blew. Then she saw it was trapped in a net.

We doused the sails, started the motor, and turned around to assess. We were looking at the top of a humpback whale. Only a relatively small part of the whale was above the surface, a portion from aft of the head to just before the hump. The whale raised the top of its head to blow and then submerged it again, otherwise it didn’t move. A string of net buoys trailed about 40 feet behind.
I lowered the dinghy into the water, Windy handed me a knife, and off I went to see what I could do to help this animal. As I neared, the whale seemed to get bigger and Del Viento seemed to shrink and get further away. I shut off the dinghy motor as I approached the net buoys behind the whale. The only sound was of seas breaking over the whale’s back.

I began pulling net aboard the dinghy, filling it with leaded polypropylene line, buoys, monofilament, and dead fish. But pulling the net also pulled me closer to the whale and its massive fluke that I could nearly make out, deep below the surface. When a portion of the net became too heavy to pull up, I plunged my arm down and cut the ½-inch polypropylene. I did this until all of this net visible from the surface was piled high in the dinghy. The whale didn’t move, but continued blowing. I was having a hard time keeping from getting tangled in the netting I was now sitting on.
I drove away from the whale and summoned Windy on Del Viento. We agreed I should try to do more from the water. She handed me my fins and a mask, I side-tied the dinghy to Del Viento, and she motored upwind of the whale. About 25 yards away, I rolled off the dinghy and began swimming towards the whale.

This was a new experience. In the water with the whale, I felt small and vulnerable. The smooth top of its body was now above my head. Treading water about ten feet away from a wounded wild animal, I felt scared and stupid. I inched closer.
Here I am sitting on the net I hauled and filled our 11-foot dinghy with, telling
Windy that I can't get any more and need to go in the water. What is cool about
this picture is that you can see the whale's brilliant white pectoral fin about 6
feet underwater.
Curiously, when the whale blew, it sounded like the threatening noise of a big cat. Not the roar of a lion, but the noise Hollywood dubs in when a tiger is cornered. It wasn’t a reassuring noise and startled me every time. When my head was underwater, I heard a cacophony of high-pitched squeaks.

Putting my mask in the water was surreal, seeing all that was down there, the size of a city bus, next to me. I let the swells move me closer until I bumped up against it, just abeam its hump. They body felt firm and the skin slippery. I quickly began stroking it like Windy advised me, hoping that would help the whale to distinguish friend from foe. Then I grabbed a polypropylene line about 18 inches down and cut it. My pulse raced and I felt jittery from adrenaline.
I pushed myself away and could see many more lines, lower and towards the fluke. The fluke itself was maybe ten feet underwater and covered with barnacles along the leading edge. It looked massive, and I was concerned about being near it, but it never moved the entire time I was with the whale; I reasoned it was weighed down by netting, catch in the net, weighted line designed to submerge the net, or all three.

With my life vest on, I couldn’t dive far below the surface. Even with fins on, I struggled to control myself in the surge of the two- to three-foot swells. At once, my fin snagged in the monofilament and pulled at my leg with the surge. I thrust my leg away in a panic. I put the knife back in my pocket and removed my vest, looping it through just one arm and letting it drag behind me. I could now get a bit deeper, but not down to the fluke, about 12 feet below the surface. I swam this way to the front of the whale. Line and netting were wrapped around its snout and on the pectoral fin on this side. This fin was white and about the size of a surfboard, an old longboard, and also covered in barnacles. I recalled the power exerted by the whales we saw a few days prior, slapping these giant fins repeatedly against the water. I opened my knife, dove underwater, and reached for some netting at the tip of the fin and started cutting quickly.
I cut a piece of the polypropylene and some monofilament when the whale abruptly moved the fin out of my reach. This startled me. I backed away and swam towards the head for the first time. Before I realized it, I was staring at a blue-gray, human-like eye the size of an orange. This was unsettling and I looked away and continued forward.

At this point, I've taken my life vest off and hooked it loosely around one arm.
I knew going in that this was a baleen whale, meaning no teeth, but a large filter apparatus for trapping plankton. So I knew I wasn’t going to get chomped up here where the mouth was, but thoughts of getting sucked against the baleen ran through my head, along with a bunch of other irrational fear-inducing thoughts, like that whatever distress signals this guy was sending are probably drawing sharks for miles, due to arrive any minute. Or, that maybe another whale would come to assist, see me as the threat, and ram me or Del Viento.
And then the rational fears occurred to me, compounding my anxiety. What if I am underwater (or above), he moves, I get tangled in this mess all around, and drown? What if I dive down and successfully cut something heavy and get tangled and pulled down with it? Meanwhile, seas were making the operation difficult despite the risks. I made a few more successful attempts to cut away parts of the net from the badly tangled whale, and then swam away and waved Windy over.

Over the water I told her about my safety concerns. I told her I was going to give it one more good try to cut the netting around the snout, and that she should stay close. I swam back to the whale.
Up near the head, this time on the leeward side, I again met the animals gaze about a foot underwater. I could see that this pectoral fin was not as tangled, but did have a single polypropylene line passing underneath it, pulling taught from the snout. It was about four feet underwater. I dove down to cut it, but the line was pressed against the body and the fin moved and spooked me. I was at an odd angle in the water, struggling with the life vest wrapped around my good arm. I would have been more effective with it off completely, but I didn’t think that was the right thing to do. I swam forward. I again dived to cut a single line that I thought might make a difference, if I could reach it. But then this massive head bowed down even lower and underneath me. I was over the top of it and could feel my body pushed around by the current created by the whale’s movement.

I’d had enough. I wasn’t physically spent, and I even figured I could keep my fear in check long enough to make some real improvement to the situation, but I felt it wasn’t wise. I wanted to help this suffering mammal, with eyes, but I couldn’t accept the risks I perceived.
I motioned Windy closer and swam back and boarded Del Viento. It was difficult to motor away, but we felt there was nothing more we could do. We could see it continue to blow as we got further away. We both were uneasy and troubled.

As I pulled on the net early on, I was pulling myself closer to the fluke, submerged
deep below. In this picture, I am probably 15 feet from the exposed back, pulling, cutting,
and keeping an eye on my position. The seas seemed much steeper and rougher than they
appear here. I was really rocking and rolling and getting tossed about.
After setting the hook off Isla Isabela, we brainstormed ideas. Windy proposed we motor out again, find the whale, and spend the night shadowing it. If it wasn’t dead by morning, maybe it would be tired enough to no longer pose a threat. I countered that the threat of being perceived as a threat by the whale was only part of the danger, and how could we assess whether it was more docile? We decided that with a smallish anchor and line, we could motor up to the whale’s tail, toss the anchor beyond it, and perhaps snag the bulk of the net that must be holding the fluke down, haul that up with the windlass, and cut when we could no longer pull it closer. We both liked the idea, but don’t have an anchor aboard less than 40 pounds.
We made a call to the fleet. One of the three boats in the anchorage answered, as well as a vessel in distant San Blas who heard our call and who had recently helped cut the net away from a mother whale and its calf. Wendaway didn’t have any additional advice, but did strongly advise against going in the water next time. It sounded like their whale was tangled such that the lines could all be cut from the dinghy, and they had two adults in the dinghy, a real advantage. I felt better about the difficult decision we made.

But the other boat that answered was in the anchorage with us and had been with Wendaway and was eager to assist. Before we knew it, The Rose took our coordinates and pulled anchor to go see if they could find the whale and assist. Windy motored me over to them, I jumped aboard their Peterson 46 and went along. It was about 20 minutes to sunset. Fortunately, I had the iPad with us and it showed our GPS track with the whale encounter. The wind and swells were moving south and we traced a line through the circles Del Viento’s path made while I was in the water. We estimated the approximate drift of the whale during the 90 minutes that had passed since our encounter and made our search along a southerly trajectory—to no avail. We had a lot of false alarms, spotting other, non-tangled whales and dolphins, but decided that our tangled whale was either too hard to find, or sunk.
In retrospect, Windy and I should have stayed with the whale when we could think of nothing else to do, radioing for assistance from where we were. We also should have spent more time brainstorming before leaving this whale. We felt sick about the whole thing and now so did the crew of The Rose.

But tomorrow would be a new day…stay tuned for an uplifting Part Two...
--MR

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Frances suited up in her bid to be a whale rescuer too.

11 comments:

  1. Wow. mindblowing. I am on pins for part II and glad it's leaked as uplifting.

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  2. We are missing the cruising life and are home in Hawaii where the humpback whales are now. I too am on pin and needles for the part II.

    Tanya SV MEshach

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  3. Hello,

    I have been following your blog for some time already. We are a family of four from Europe, also with two daughters (8 and 6), with a boat and also making serious plans for the cruising lifestyle.

    You seem to feel so bad about leaving the whale that I wanted to write to you. You absolutely already did more than most people - even most cruisers - would have done! In fact, I cannot believe what you did, that is so courageous. You should feel so proud of yourselves.

    Take care, and enjoy the life that we are still only dreaming of! (our plan is to take off in three years time)

    BR,
    Karin

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  4. Hey mike,
    I know if I were in your position I would have done everything to help that whale too- you tried to save the whale to the point probably past your own comfort level before you returned to your boat. I'm proud of you.
    Shaun

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  5. Miguel, This is why I love you. But dang, you also scare the crap out of me.

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  6. Kudos to you guys, I am hoping for a happy ending for that whale!

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  7. Wow that really was a heartbreaking situation. I can't imagine that poor whale trapped in all that netting out in the middle of the ocean. How sad. I too am hoping for a happy ending ... is there one?

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  8. I won't be able to sleep tonight waiting for the outcome of this situation. But I know I will now be prepared to see whales tangled in fishing net since this sounds more common than I would like to think. Good work doing everything you could to help. I like to think that mammals of that high intelligence know when they are receiving help.

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  9. Hey MR, when is part 2 coming? I will ask my niece for some info, she was at a marine ecology program in La Paz last spring.

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  10. Michael, I sure hope you sail yourselves to Internet again soon! I keep refreshing the page looking for part 2. I hope the whale and the four of you are all well!

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  11. Wow, Michael. What an experience for you guys to go through. That must have been so emotional - thank you for sharing this, and I can tell you the Nyon crew (+1) can't wait to read Part II!

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