A YOUNG humpback whale that was caught between a ship and the quay in Table Bay harbour was freed in the early hours of yesterday morning in a rescue operation that involved several government departments, the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) and police divers.
And because the young whale was too confused to move, the massive ship had to move instead.
The story began around 11pm on Sunday when staff on the ship MV Explorer spotted the whale between their ship and the quay. They alerted the Transnet National Ports Authority, which alerted the Department of Environment, which set in motion a co-ordinated rescue operation that ended around 5am yesterday.
Mike Meyer from the Department of Environment, who went to assess the situation just before midnight on Sunday, said whales sometimes took a wrong turn into the harbour and were unable to find their way out.
“Once they’re in, they get confused and seem to go into a kind of trance. This young animal was about eight metres long, which indicates it was about one year old, and would have been weaned by this age. It had some injuries on its snout from the harbour wall and was not a very happy chappie when we got there.”
There was enough room between the ship and the harbour wall to allow the whale some movement. Rescuers, armed with torches and a pole, tried to nudge the animal backwards into open water, but it kept on moving inward towards where the ship was pressed against the tyres on the quay.
Once that failed, the operation had to move to plan B: if the whale would not move, the ship had to move. The Ports Authority and the ship’s agents gave permission for the ship to move.
NSRI spokesman Craig Lambinon said two port tugs, the Merlot and the Pinotage, were dispatched to the ship, the ship’s crew and shore crews mustered to “carry out the massive task of moving the 24 300 ton, 590 foot ship into the middle of the harbour to make room for the rescue”.
Once the ship had moved, two inflatable boats with NSRI crews and police divers moved in to try to coax the whale away from the quay. But, said Lambinon, the whale “stubbornly refused to budge”.
Meyer said one of the worst aspects of the situation was the distressing noise the whale made. “It was squealing.”
Plan C then kicked in: police diver Douglas Jones volunteered to get into the water and push the whale away from the harbour.
Meyer said getting close to whales can be dangerous, but the diver stayed clear of the tail, the most dangerous part.
“He put his feet against its head and pushed.”
With the help of the small boats, the diver eventually guided the whale out. The ship was then redocked.
“Suddenly we saw the whale start to swim next to the tug, and it stuck to the tug just the way a young whale does with a whale cow,” Meyer said. “We warned the tug driver to move slowly out to sea. It did and the youngster stuck with it, just like it would with its mother, and followed the tug out of the harbour into the sea.
“We haven’t seen it again, and searchers this morning did not find any beached whales, so hopefully the rescue worked.”