By Hayley Pugh
These brave men are dwarfed by the huge 60-ton whale they are trying to save as they cut it free from fishing ropes – just weeks after a rescuer died doing the exact same thing.
As these extraordinary pictures show, members of the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) in South Africa approached the giant mammal several times and were forced to dodge its tail as they used specialist cutting equipment to eventually free the Southern right whale.
The brave crew were on their first ever mission of this kind but remarkably managed to free the animal after around 45 minutes by making five cuts in the ropes during the rescue at Sunny Cove near Fish Hoek.
The spectacular images were captured by photographer, Rob Tarr and come just weeks after a highly experienced whale rescuer from Canada was killed when he was struck by the tail of an endangered whale he had freed from fishing lines.
Rob, who is also a marine biologist, said: “My wife heard about the whale on a local talk radio station, and called me. Luckily I was minutes away from the incident and I always carry my camera gear in my car.
“This sort of thing isn’t very common but there are a few incidents every year of whales becoming entangled in fishing gear. Usually it is either lobster or octopus fishery gear.
“It is a dangerous job. Southern Right Whales are known to be aggressive sometimes but this one fortunately did not show any aggression.
“The danger lies in being struck by the tail.
“It was distressing to watch the whale struggling against the ropes, gasping for air with a very different sound from what one normally hears when a whale blows. It was clearly stuck within a small radius – trapped by the ropes.
“At the same time it was exhilarating to see the team carefully approaching the whale repeatedly and successfully making cuts on the ropes.
“The boat is only able to approach the whale when the whale is calm, and not thrashing around.
“It was the first time that this particular team had had to tackle a disentanglement on their own, so they were relying solely on their training, as well as observation of previous incidents.
“They consulted with other team members by radio, and planned the cut sequence.
“A safety person was appointed to monitor the movement of the tail and warn of any impending danger.
“Once it was freed, it simply submerged and disappeared – clearly it had had enough of the place and was happy to head out into the bay.”
The whale disentanglement teams are part of a national body called the South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN).
This is controlled primarily by a state department – The Department of Environment Affairs, Oceans and Coasts.