Whale Release and Strandings co-director, Wayne Ledwell and marine mammal disentanglement coordinator, Everett Sacrey disentangle a humpback whale in Plate Cove West, NL. Paul Dolk

Rescuing entangled and stranded whales is something of a family business for married couple Julie Huntington and Wayne Ledwell. 

The pair are co-directors of the Whale Release and Strandings program. They work alongside two other team members to respond to calls to hep whales that have become entrapped in fishing gear or ice or stranded in shallow water. 

The program became a non-profit organisation in 2001 with Huntington and Ledwell as co-directors, but the couple has been disentangling whales for over 30 years. 

Husband and wife, Wayne Ledwell and Julie Huntington, co-directors of Whale Release and Strandings disentangling a Humpback whale in Northern Bay, NL.

The whale rescue program originally began 45 years ago, and it was run through Memorial University.  

“It was started as a program to help fishermen get back to fishing as soon as possible after they had got a whale entangled in their nets, mainly cod traps,” said Huntington.  

The program was founded and developed by the late Dr. Jon Lien, who was a professor and whale researcher at Memorial. Both Ledwell, who grew up in the Southern Shore fishing village of Calvert, and Huntington, who is originally from Wisconsin, worked with Lien, learning the ins and the outs of the process from him.  

Unlike many other disentanglement groups that use larger, hard-hulled boats, Whale Release and Strandings uses a much more intimate approach for their rescues. They use five-meter inflatable Zodiac boats to get close enough to the animals to cut them free. They work in teams of two to aid fishermen in releasing whales from their gear. The equipment that they use in their rescues was “designed here in Newfoundland,” according to Huntington, and is now used worldwide.  

The program provides service to over 800 fishing communities in Newfoundland and Labrador over 17,000 kms of coastline. 

“Seventeen thousand kilometres is large, because it’s every nook and cranny of the Newfoundland coast,” said Huntington. When it comes to responding to calls from distant communities, “oftentimes, the thing that takes us the longest is getting there,” she said.  

But the organization is “well able to handle that (area),” said Huntington. “We have two teams ready to be dispatched and two boats, so we can cover that distance.”  

For very distant and remote calls, such as in communities in Labrador, the team flies to the location to respond. 

The techniques the group uses to safely rescue marine animals have evolved since the 1980s, but the basic principles remain the same giving the team many years of collective experience to fall back on. They rely on guidance from their marine mammal disentanglement coordinator, Everett Sacrey, to determine the best way to handle each entrapment and stranding. 

Whale Release and Strandings co-director, Wayne Ledwell, and marine mammal disentanglement coordinator, Everett Sacrey, disentangling a whale in Bay Bulls, NL.

“Every whale is different,” said Huntington. “Every entanglement is different. We find (the whale), and we assess the situation. We look and see where it’s entangled and we decide (how) to take the gear off, sort of systematically so that the whale doesn’t (leave) with gear on it… We don’t like to let the whale go until everything’s off of it, because if you leave it with gear on it, that increases the chances of it dying or of it getting caught in gear again.” 

While there are many risks involved with the work, the group has many safety measures in place to protect both their team members and the animals. 

“(Safety) is a question we consider all the time,” said Huntington. The team takes all the proper precautions, like wearing life jackets and using safety lines, and they have a DFO boat on standby in case of emergency. Most importantly, the team approaches every situation with awareness. “We’re quite conscious of how we approach these animals,” she said, “because they’re up to 40-ton animals and they’re in the lead all the time.” 

Although the Whale Release and Strandings group offers guidance to allow fishermen to safely disentangle smaller marine animals like turtles from their equipment themselves, they advise the public to wait for the arrival of a qualified expert when it comes to rescuing whales.  

“With whales, we would like (people) to contact us as soon as they see it entangled, and not to remove anything off of the whale because that allows us to relocate the whale faster.” 

“I think it’s really important that people call us when they see an entangled whale,” Huntington emphasized. “Then, we can respond right away… The most challenging thing is when people don’t call us right away.” 

Fortunately, the number of entanglements has dropped over the past 20 years. However, there is still a strong need for qualified experts like Huntington and Ledwell and their crew. 

“There’s a call for people to disentangle whales… and we answer that call,” said Huntington. 

In addition to its crucial rescue services, Whale Release and Strandings also offers valuable education outreach programs and research initiatives. In the early 2000s the program developed an education outreach program to fund their rescues. The group travelled to coastal schools around the province to talk about whales and sea turtles, discussing topics from anatomy to the importance of maintaining clean marine environments. While the program now receives funding from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for disentanglement work, the members still visit schools when requested. 

As for research, the program frequently collaborates with other organizations to discuss disentanglement and unusual marine events in and around the province. 

The Whale Release and Strandings group reminds recreational fishers to follow all the appropriate guidelines when fishing and to keep their distance from whales as much as possible. They ask everyone to call their hotline at 1-888-895-3003 if they see something that appears to be an entangled or stranded whale.

By Alexandra Brothers, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 04, 2023 at 10:32

This item reprinted with permission from   Shoreline News   Conception Bay South, Newfoundland>

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