Wayne Phillips has both feet firmly on solid ground as he takes action by cutting a whale out of his fishing gear.
The 51-year-old SeaWorld Queensland marine science manager oversees the park’s sea rescue team – four cutters, a coordinator, a captain and a videographer – who disentangle humpback whales that have become bound by a rope and a net.
The cutters, he explains, are armed with a gaff – a graphite pole similar to a fishing rod but topped with an inverted knife that doesn’t cut the whale if it connects – and work in pairs to wrestle against muscle fatigue.
Out on the water, with a giant 27-tonne in distress, the purpose-built rubber dinghy used by the team pitches and rocks on the waves. The goal of the cutters is to aim for the gaff to snag the correct rope before pulling it hard to cut it cleanly.
“You reach out, you reach out and you step back – and it’s all based on where the tail is,” Phillips explains. “You might get a hit or two on it, and then the whale might turn away or dive.
“It’s an exhausting process. At the end of the day, you’re fucked.
Phillips has worked in sea rescue for nearly 28 years, helping dolphins, seals, turtles and other entangled, stranded or sick animals. Now an increasing part of the job is disentangling humpback whales.
Humpback whale numbers have returned from near extinction to around 30,000 in what is widely seen as a conservation triumph. But now the species faces a new human threat: climate change.
As the world’s oceans warm and acidify, humpback whales – like other marine species – are changing their old migration patterns in search of food and shelter.
And as they roam new areas along the Australian coast, the increasing overlap with the human world can be deadly.
An invisible problem
Globally, an estimated 300,000 great whales and dolphins die each year in entanglements, although only a fraction are ever recorded.
As definitions vary by jurisdiction, what counts as a tangle and what is included in official reports often obscures the extent of the problem.
According to records collected by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the International Whaling Commission, Australia recorded just 436 whale entanglements between 1887 and 2016.
However, these records do not include sightings of whales towing gear reported by the public, or whales that have become entangled in crab traps. By contrast, Queensland’s Shark Control Program alone recorded 80 humpback whales snagged in its nets between 1992 and 2020.
Phillips says there were 28 reports of entangled whales along the east coast of Australia last year, two of which his team was able to help. He estimates that despite the best efforts of maritime rescue teams around the coast, only one in five reports are followed up.
Throughout the country, a mixture of government agencies and private organizations operate maritime rescue teams, each with responsibility for a different area. The SeaWorld team covers an area stretching from South East Queensland and the NSW North Coast to Evans Head.
Their work usually starts from June, a few months after the first humpback whales were spotted off Sydney on their annual northward migration, when the first reports of whales towing gear – sometimes several meters in length .
They will continue until November, when the animals set off on their long journey back south, traveling 10,000 km to Antarctica.
Phillips says the worst material he’s come across is nets that include a chain, as the material is impossible to cut – although they are rare.
By far the most common entanglements are those in crab pots and the ropes that connect the cage on the seabed to a float on the surface.
As the whales do not navigate by echolocation, they will pass through the area and grab the rope as they go. Many will try to wrestle away or roll away, but often this just tightens the ropes.
Over time, the material builds up around the whale’s fin – its tail – preventing it from hunting effectively as it drags the rope material for thousands of miles. A juvenile whale was spotted in Antarctic waters with towed gear in early January, after traveling along the South American coast.
“It’s like a ball and chain,” says Phillips. “Imagine dragging this around while swimming.
“And then imagine someone continually pulling on them because of the drag that the water puts on that piece of equipment. These animals are so streamlined that they’re built to walk through water. Any drag makes it much more difficult for them.
“It really is a slow death for animals.”
“They see us as part of the problem”
The first step in removing equipment is counter-intuitive. To cut it, the team must slow the whale down by attaching floats or buoys to the net it is dragging.
It’s a tactic that echoes those used by whalers and, from the whale’s perspective, the sound of an approaching engine is always alarming.
“They’re not always happy that we’re trying to help them, that’s for sure,” Phillips says. “They see us as part of the problem initially. And sometimes we have a very predator-prey relationship with the whale.
“He thinks we’re trying to hurt him, so he thinks we’re the predator.”
This relationship makes every rescue extremely dangerous. A frightened whale may attempt to roll, dive, fight, or slap its tail, and escort animals, such as adult whales protecting a calf, may attempt to fend off approaching boats.
At least three deaths have been documented among whale rescuers around the world. Among the first was Tom Smith, who died in 2003 while trying to free a humpback whale in the waters off Kaikoura in New Zealand. His body has never been found.
Canadian whale rescue veteran Joe Howlett, 59, was killed in 2017 moments after successfully releasing an endangered northern right whale into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Phillips says members of the public should never attempt their own rescue. Even if it doesn’t end in tragedy, it often only makes things worse for the animal.
“Their heart is in the right place, but if they don’t cut everything, it makes our job harder,” he says. “When they cut off part of the net, the whale swims quite well, but unfortunately it’s still a death sentence.
“Any material around this fluke means the whale will eventually succumb.”
The effect of climate change
Dr Olaf Meynecke, a whale researcher at Griffith University and the Whales & Climate program – a collaborative research project between six universities – says climate change is already having an indirect impact on the number of entanglements.
“It’s the food source that guides everything in the lives of whales, and they migrate for six months straight every year. It takes a lot of energy,” says Meynecke.
“Their advantage is that they can store energy in their fat as fat, but that also means there’s little time to eat.”
Climate change affects the location and amount of food available.
Meynecke says other whale species have grown in waters close to humans, and the same is expected to happen with humpback whales in Australia.
The whales most at risk of entanglement are ‘wintering’ whales – usually young, non-breeding females that stay in Australian coastal waters all summer and end up trying to feed opportunistically near fishing grounds. commercial.
Meynecke’s research aims to predict how these changes will play out through 2050 by comparing the movements of whales today with those hundreds of years ago.
He says there are signs that whale populations are already starting to arrive earlier than expected and are not always traveling as far north as before. If this is confirmed, action can be taken to prevent more animals from being lost.
But it would require coordination between governments, science, industry and the whale-watching public to create more centralized reporting systems, change fishing practices, introduce ropeless fishing gear and ban the use of materials such as warp in nets.
It may seem like a tall order, but Meynecke says the legacy of anti-whaling efforts in the past is a generational shift that has made humpback whales a sacrosanct part of Australian culture.
“It was a complete change in society,” he says. “Our society has gone from ‘I enjoy whaling’ to ‘I enjoy taking pictures of whales and paying for it’.
“No one in Australia – not a single politician – would come today and say let’s kill the whales. It gives me a lot of hope. It shows a capacity for change.