Rescuing “Cutter” the Humpback Whale

As the days begin to shorten, the waters off northeastern Vancouver Island team with activity as every animal is trying to get in their catch before the season is over. While using this opportunity to collect some data on the feeding activity of humpback whales yesterday, I came across a group of three whales that we at MERS know very well – Twister, Cutter, and Corporal. They were all tightly grouped and moving fast, seemingly panicked.  I had a closer look through binoculars and was able to see the source of the panic – Cutter had ripped through a seine net and had it wrapped around his head and body.

Cutter, entangled in fishing net (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Cutter, entangled in fishing net
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Interestingly, one of Cutter’s companions, Twister, already has a history with fishing gear. In a period of less than 3 weeks in 2009 he became entangled twice. Both times, the fishermen who set the gear reported the incident immediately, and trained responders from DFO were able to free the whale.  As was the case with Twister, a quick response provides the best chance of survival, so having been involved with the rescues of several entangled whales both in BC and in the Atlantic, I alerted the authorities and carefully moved in for a closer look.

The net on Cutter's head was attached by barnacles and tubercles on his lower jaw.   (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

The net on Cutter’s head was attached by barnacles and tubercles on his lower jaw.
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Cutter was staying close to the surface and lifting his head high in the air allowing me to confirm with photographs that the net was just caught on the barnacles and tubercles of his bottom jaw. With the help of DFO and using standard disentanglement techniques including a long pole, lines, and flotation the net was grabbed onto and once tension was applied, Cutter tossed his head back and the 60-foot swath of net came off.

Cutter twisting at the surface (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Cutter twisting at the surface
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Within seconds Cutter went on a long dive, followed by Twister and Corporal.  When Cutter surfaced again, he was alone but was relaxed and swimming slowly. This afternoon, we found Cutter looking healthy and behaving normally, feeding along with 3 other whales only a few miles from where I saw him yesterday.

Cutter today - swimming and feeding effectively.  Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS

Cutter today – swimming and feeding effectively. Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS

This situation is a reminder that with the return of humpback whales to the coast of BC, there is increasing overlap between whales and fisheries. This is a difficult situation for both parties, as entanglements can lead to injuries and deaths for whales, and loss of catch and gear for fishermen. MERS has been studying the threat of entanglement since 2010, and has found that a significant number of the whales we have documented show scars from previous entanglements. If you see an entangled whale, call DFO’s Marine Mammal Incident Reporting Hotline immediately at 1-800-465-4336.  If possible, standby the whale until trained responders arrive, but do not touch the whale or the entangling gear.

To learn about MERS’ education and research projects, check out our website at  Please also consider liking us on facebook, following this blog and/or making a donation now.

~ Christie

About MERS

We are a non-profit organization dedication to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research and environmental education.
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4 Responses to Rescuing “Cutter” the Humpback Whale

  1. Bill Haley says:

    Good spot Christie and the fast response looks as though it saved Cutter from distress.

    Bill and Pat Haley

  2. Ingmar Lee says:

    The problem with leaving all whale dis-entanglements up to DFO is that DFO does nothing whatsoever to prevent the entanglements to begin with. I was working at the Koeye River last year, just opposite Hakai Pass in Fitzhugh Sound. In June the Humpbacks showed up, lots of them and Fitzhugh Sound was packed with whales, breaching, tail-slapping going on day and night. We had regular bubble-net feeding directly off Koeye. So in August, DFO opens up the Gillnet fishery at Uganda Point, less than a mile north of Koeye, and right off the bat they started netting Humpbacks. I’m sure that Paul Cotrell and co are very skilled at doing what they do, but it behooves us to figure out how to help prevent the entanglements to begin with. Everywhere Humpbacks go, they face entanglements. These are intelligent beings. Surely, with some effort, we can figure out a way to warn them away from the gear.. Cheers, Ingmar

  3. Lynn Barrett says:

    Great info Ingmar!

  4. Melissa says:

    Aloha Christie! In a few weeks I will be presenting a post on marine plastic debris on Oahu at an event meant to remind people the importance about science and get excited about it. I was hoping to get permission to use the second humpback photo as part of my images to show the public what issues marine debris really are causing for all different kinds of species in our oceans. Please let me know! Mahalo

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