A fisherman might have saved the life of a critically endangered northern right whale on Sunday by diving overboard and using a knife to disentangle the mammal (see video).
Capt. Pat Foster and mate Adrian Colaprete were aboard the vessel Wave Runner when they encountered the whale about 50 miles off Virginia Beach, Va.
The mammal was encumbered by a rope or trap line that was dragging heavy fishing gear. The rope looks to have been inside the whale’s mouth. In the video footage it can be seen protruding from both sides of the whale at the mouth corners, with the rest of the fishing gear far below and not visible. (The rescue occurrs during the first 1:15.)
Northern right whales feed largely by skimming with their mouths open, which could explain how it became entangled in this manner.
Normally, in this type of situation, citizens should telephone NOAA Fisheries or a group trained in the rescue of large mammals.
But Foster and Colaprete decided to act quickly after identifying the struggling mammal as a northern right whale, the rarest of large whales and among the rarest of all marine mammal species.
(The whales were once hunted to the brink of extinction; there are currently about 450 in the North Atlantic.)
The entangled whale was swimming slowly so Foster was able to pilot the boat ahead of the mammal, so Colaprete could jump in with his knife.
He had planned, initially, merely to assess the situation.
“I jumped in and started swimming towards it and I couldn’t see it because I was pretty far in front of it, and then all of a sudden it came out of the gloom, and it was almost like a submarine coming at me,” he said.
He chose to cut the rope when the whale slowed even more as it swam alongside the diver.
“As soon as the whale kind of passed me and I was parallel to its face and to its eye, it kind of stopped… It kind of gave me a little window to get down there.”
As viewers can see at about the 1:05 mark, the sliced rope slides free of the whale, which then reveals its tail fluke to signal a dive.
It then disappears and Colaprete is overjoyed.
“Got it!” he exclaims from the water, to Foster on the boat. “Hey I cut the line; it slid right through its tail. It’s gone!”