100922-Hermanus-Whale. A Southern Right Whale at Hermanus. Picture: Christiaan Louw. Reporter: Helen Bamford

Cape Town - It took a specialised team four hours to free a southern right whale so badly entangled in fishing ropes that the ropes had become embedded in its flesh.

It was the worst case of entanglement the team had dealt with, according to Mike Meyer of the Department of Environment’s Oceans and Coast branch.

There was also a mass of rope under the whale, and it was dragging a buoy attached to the fishing ropes. Meyer estimates the whale had been entangled for around a month.

“You could see that rope had been in the water for a long time because it was covered in algae and such stuff. There were also hundreds of little barnacles on the animal which will grow only on animals that are very slow-moving, which it would have been. It was not in a good condition,” Meyer said.

The whale was spotted in Table Bay by staff from Port Control office early on Wednesday when the whale came past their tower in the harbour.

They alerted Meyer, a member of the SA Whale Entanglement Network, who assembled a rescue team. There were four Environment Affairs staff in one vessel and nine police from the SAPS water wing in a 9m rubber duck, which carried the equipment.

Entangled whales have to be slowed down and kept close to the surface to allow the team to work. One of the ways of doing this is “kegging”, a modification of an old whaling practice, which involves attaching huge buoys to the whales, designed to be cut loose easily.

“A lot of the rope had cut into the animal and was embedded in the muscle… We made 27 cuts in the rope altogether.

“Some of it came off, but to get the embedded rope off we had to come up behind the animal and use grappling irons to pull it off. We held it over the boat to put drag on the rope as the animal swims, and that helped pull it out.”

Some sections had cut so deep into the whale’s flesh, they could not be removed, but Meyer said these might work themselves out naturally.

Southern right whales usually feed in the southern Atlantic around the Antarctic, and come to our coast in winter to calve. Meyer said some stayed on the West Coast in summer to feed on the plankton blooms caused by upwelling in the ocean from the south-east winds.

The West Coast was where much of the fishing occurred, so the animals ran the risk of becoming entangled.

“We can’t say if it will survive, but I am optimistic.”

Nan Rice, head of the Dolphin Action and Protection Group and founder of the entanglement network, praised the team for their work.

“They are so brave to do this because it is very dangerous work.

“Southern rights get very feisty if they are entangled and become really dangerous. The team all have to carry high-risk insurance,” she said. - Cape Times