19 September 2005

South Africa: Divers 'even the score' after Mnandi stranded whale tragedy

Just a day after they had to put down a stranded whale, police divers "evened the score" with a dramatic rescue of a young Southern Right whale entangled in rock lobster traps at the entrance to False Bay.

On Wednesday police had to use an explosive charge to humanely kill the young Southern Right whale stranded at Mnandi beach, also in False Bay.

Then after a struggle of several hours yesterday, divers and marine officials from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism freed the second whale in the Rocky Banks area outside the mouth of False Bay

The whale - about eight or nine metres long and described as "a real youngster" - had the ropes of seven rock lobster trap buoys wrapped around it, with five of the traps still attached.

Most of the rope had wound around the tail stock, making it almost impossible for the animal to move.

Mike Meyer of the department's marine mammal section said they had been alerted to the whale's plight by their rock lobster research vessel Pelagus, which had in turn been told about the whale by rock lobster fishermen.

The police diving unit, which had been working at Philadelphia, had rushed back to the city to help.

The rescue team went out from the Miller's Point slipway and reached the whale at about 1pm, Meyer said.

"We managed to cut off all the traps except two.

"We have a policy of no diving if we can help it, because it's so dangerous, but in this case we simply had to put the guys down into the water."

One of them was Eben Lourens, who on Wednesday had the job of mercy-killing the stranded whale.

Just weeks ago, Lourens was part of a team that rescued a young humpback whale that also had rock lobster traps wrapped around its tail.

Lourens and colleague Gert Voigt dived under the trapped whale, which was all but stationary in the water because of the weight of the traps.

They eventually managed to remove the remaining two traps.

"The first three traps were easy to cut and we managed to do those from the boat, but because of the way the whale was floating, we had to go into the water to get at the other two," Lourens said early today.

This rescue had not been as difficult as the operation to free the humpback whale at Gordon's Bay, he added.

"Fortunately, I think this whale was really exhausted, so there was no real movement from it - it was calm and still all the time, so it wasn't that tricky.

"But it took us much longer to do, so it was harder work."

The rescue had taken more than two hours, Meyer explained.

"The first cutting session took us about two hours, and then the second (in the water) was about 20 minutes.

"We finally got all the ropes off, and there didn't appear to be much damage to the animal, just a couple of indentations."

Lourens said the whale had at first not appeared to realise it had been freed.

"I don't think it realised it was loose, because it just lay there. And then it just swam off slowly - I think it was very tired."

Lourens described the experience as particularly rewarding, coming just two days after having to put down the Mnandi beach whale.

"In the past year or two I've had to put two down and now I've helped rescue two, so I'm even."

All members of the police's dive unit are volunteers, with some - like Lourens - being full-time police personnel with other duties, and others police reservists.

Dave Lehr, co-ordinator of the reservists, said they were extremely happy about the rescue.

"We were all on such a low after Mnandi beach, now we're on a high - I think we're all on a whale emotional roller-coaster!" he joked.

Source: www.allafrica.com


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