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HomeLatest NewsHumpback migration: the specialised team that saves their tails

Humpback migration: the specialised team that saves their tails

Northern Beaches residents are still being treated to the spectacle of thousands of humpback whales as they migrate north for warmer waters after a busy summer feeding in the southern ocean.

The migration is 10,000km long and happens annually along Australia’s shores. The large mammals pursue the treacherous trip to find a warmer climate to feed and breed in, but they don’t all make it, with fishing nets and man-made plastic marine debris becoming entangling over dozen of the creatures each year.

So, what do you do if you see an entangled whale or other marine creature and who actually helps them?

The short answer is National Parks or ORCCA (numbers at addendum), but they actually a deploy a specialised team trained for this very task.

The Large Whale Entanglement Team (LWDT) was assembled by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to rescue any whale who may find themselves tied up.

Successful whale rescue Diamond Head. Credit-NPWS

Last year, the team made 13 rescues of humpback whales trapped in entanglements across the NSW coastline.

Marine life caught in discarded fishing gear or marine debris can lead to fatigue, injury, and death.

In an average rescue, the NPWS will launch small inflatable boats to approach an entangled animal and assess the entanglement, the animal’s condition, speed and behaviour.

They then plan a release strategy to cut the animal free, sometimes slowing the animal down by temporarily attaching large buoys.

This year NPWS has not reported any rescues from the LWDT, but they had been involved in searches for many following public reports.

Humpback whales. Credit J.Liebschner, DPIE

NPWS Marine Wildlife Team Leader Duane March said the group has expanded in its capacity but not every rescue was a success as the safety of her crew is priority.

“With our expanded team in place, we’re better equipped to help these whales if they find themselves in distress in NSW coastal waters,” Ms March explained.

“While this increased capacity is a positive step, whale disentanglements are inherently dangerous and dependent on weather and sea conditions. The safety of our teams is always the number one priority.

“We can’t always guarantee a successful rescue, but we’re committed to doing everything in our power to help these animals when we can.”

SRW Hastings River 10 Aug 2023. Credit-Alex McNaught Roving Eye.com Photography

After an entanglement report comes in, tracking the whales alone can take days. The NPWS receives help from partner organisations such as Marine Rescue, ORRCA and SeaWorld to cover more ocean.

On 30 June, ORRCA hosted their 25th annual Cetacean Census day which involves members of the not-for-profit and the community counting the number of whales making their warmer migration from headlands along NSW and QLD. We don’t yet have the figures from that count.

It is estimated that when the Australian east coast whaling industry ended in 1963, the east coast population of humpbacks had been reduced to a little over 100 individuals. Thankfully, this population has shown steady recovery of around 10 –11% a year, and in 2006 was estimated at around 8000.

That growth has contributed to a booming whale watching tour industry, particularly on the Northern Beaches.

ORRCA is also responsible for helping marine life that become entangled in shark nets, including the rescue of a large leatherback sea turtle caught in a net at Dee Why earlier this year.

NSW Environment and Heritage states that 90 per cent of marine debris is plastic and can range from microplastics to fishing nets and building materials.

The goal of LWDT isn’t just to rescue marine life from debris, but also to understand and minimise the risk of entanglements.

The State Government is working with the fishing industry to create whale and dolphin-friendly equipment which will reduce the risk of entanglements.

The Large Whale Disentanglement Team training session. Credit – N Fletcher

OceanWatch, a national not-for-profit environmental company, is working with NSW commercial fish trap and spanner crab fishers to reduce interactions between the east coast Humpback Whale population and fishing gear.

Some techniques involve using grappling and galvanic time release (GTR) to retrieve gear or using A grade negatively buoyant sink rope, which minimises slack rope in the water.

The LWDT, as well as their partner organisations, are made up of professionals who are trained to safely remove whales from entanglement.

If you spot a whale – are any marine life for that matter – in peril, contact the numbers below.

NPWS on 13000PARKS (1300 072 757)

ORRCA on 02 9415 3333