Don’t you love seeing whale and animal rescues on YouTube or on TV or the News? I know I do. Like the one with the whale that was freed and thanked her saviors by giving them a breaching display for over an hour? Not all of these stories end happily, though. In fact, most of them don’t.
Most ocean lovers or divers dream of saving an animal in dire circumstances. Fish hooks, plastic, fishing nets, fishing lines… they are all enemies of our underwater friends. When these items are found in a national park, where no fishing is supposed to be permitted, it is that much more tragic. The number one killer of our cetacean and fishy friends? Fishing nets. Dolphins, whales, mantas, whale sharks…. these are large species who are in grave danger from these carelessly placed nets by fishermen who do not care about the possible casualties of other species. Did you know that the bodies of 300,000 whales and dolphins wash ashore each year, killed by fishing nets? Just try to imagine the hundreds of thousands who disappear into the depths… the ones that don’t wash ashore. And what a horrible death – long and drawn out, suffering from exhaustion, from asphyxia, and from the terrible fear and horror of being unable to get free.
I am in Ecuador at the moment, volunteering as a diver to take Identification photos of Manta Rays, Humpback Whales, Mola Molas, and turtles for the Marine Megafauna Foundation, and yesterday was quite a day for whale sightings. The Humpbacks were out in force – blowing and breaching! How can someone fail to be touched by the sight of pods of whales with their babies, waving, flipping, breaching? Right now, the whales are migrating through this area of Ecuador, off the coast of Puerto Lopez, a fishing village where 3 major currents converge. We go out daily in a boat to dive Isla de la Plata, where Mantas aggregate in huge numbers at this time of year. The sight of the whales coming through is an incredible bonus to our work every day. Until yesterday.
Yesterday it became personal. Our group came across an adult Humpback Whale, tangled in fishing net over it’s mouth, eyes and blowhole. The odds of freeing it were slim, and we had to choose: snorkel with feeding mantas on the surface (always exciting), or try to free the whale? Of course we went for the whale. Two of the foundation’s leaders, Andrea and Janneman, suited up and jumped in to help. They went in four times, managing a few cuts of the net, but the whale was just too fearful to allow them to help. It was heartbreaking, watching this magnificent animal struggling to survive. We were at Isla de la Plata, in the heart of the Machalilla National Park located in Ecuador, a park which forbids fishing for 2 miles out in every direction from the island. There were a dozen fishing boats. At least. They are there every single day. And not one of them stopped to help. In fact, we saw one of the boats hook a manta (they released it, but they usually leave the hook and line in the animal).
You know, putting aside our compassion for other creatures, (especially animals of such high intelligence and social behavior), humpback whales, mantas, whale sharks, and dolphins bring in tremendous amounts of tourist dollars. They are worth a lot more in dollars in the ocean, unharmed, than they are dead. The deaths of these animals are not just senseless and cruel, they are harmful to the local economies they could be supporting! If you want to help, and I hope you do, please go to the Marine Megafauna Foundation’s website here or visit us.whales.org/support-us-1. Adopt an animal, be a volunteer, boycott businesses who sell illegal products! I can tell you this: I know the folks at MMF personally, and every dollar goes to research and helping these animals. No one is living the high life in this organization.
It was not possible to save the animal. The danger to Andrea and Janneman was immense….a full grown humpback whale could break a person’s bones easily; these animals are huge, and a fearful dive could drown a person who could not free their hand from the net in time. We were all saddened to leave the animal, but there was nothing further to do. The other volunteers – Ralph, Larry, Peg and Tina – had been involved here in a successful whale rescue a few years ago… but yesterday there was no happy ending.