‘A great day’: Young North Atlantic right whale freed from fishing gear by crews in St. Lawrence

A team of whale rescuers were hollering, screaming and high-fiving Wednesday afternoon when they freed a young whale caught in fishing gear in the St. Lawrence Estuary.

The whale, believed to be one of the calves of a 35-year-old female named War (ID number 1812) was first observed on June 22 off of New Brunswick, already entangled in fishing gear.

Mackie Greene, the director of whale rescue for the Canadian Whale Institute and lead disentangler, had been following the one-and-a-half-year-old female across parts of eastern Quebec and the Maritimes, hoping for this day.

“It’s been a long go…. You feel so good, so happy that you get out of the boat and run home almost,” said Greene with a laugh. “There’s no feeling like it. And that’s part of the reason we do it too.”

When the whale was first discovered in New Brunswick, Mackie says she had a “horse bridle” of fishing gear that stretched in and around her mouth, to her flippers and over her back.

“It was really tight and this is a young whale that’s growing really fast,” said Greene. “These were really tight ropes that as she grew would cut into her really quick.”

Although Greene and his colleagues from the Campobello Whale Rescue Team (CWRT) had previously tried to free the calf, Wednesday’s trip, partly co-ordinated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) marked the final step in this case.

“We were able to get most of the rope off her except for just a few little pieces that are trailing out the right side of her mouth … but they should come out by themselves,” said Greene.

“I’m cautiously optimistic.”

The team has put a tracker on the mammal to be able to follow its movements and Greene says she seems to be in good shape.

‘It’s nice to give back,’ says rescuer

He says the team had to get very close to the juvenile whale, using long three- to four-and-a-half-metre poles from the side of a small boat.

“As you approach these whales, their first instinct is to dive,” said Greene.

“You got to watch out because that tail is coming right behind … we do get beat around a little bit. And you know, with the whale slapping the boat happens once in a while.”

The final day of the rescue happened to coincide with the seventh anniversary of the death of Greene’s colleague and friend Joe Howlett.

He was killed while freeing an entangled whale, after the animal hit the rescuer with its tail.

“I think he was there to really help us out today,” said Greene.

“We all care about the whales, you know, we’re all fishermen, We care about the ocean and everything in it. And we’ve made our living off the water. So it’s nice to give back.”

‘A tough way to start its life’

Robert Michaud, co-ordinator for Quebec’s marine mammal emergency response team, Réseau québécois d’urgences pour les mammifères marins, says it’s always a relief to hear of a successful intervention.

“It was quite impressive the number of teams that interact in these operations. We had several teams from Fisheries and Oceans on the water, in the air, giving aerial support,” said Michaud.

“It’s a tough way to start its life…. Hopefully it’s the beginning of a better story.”

While the whale is too young to be named yet, Michaud says there will be plenty of options when the time does comes, even joking “Hope” might be a good fit.