Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Whale Saved, Part II
By Michael

In this picture of a whale swimming around us, you can see the flaps
open at the top of the body, aft of the head. These are the nostrils for the blow
hole, as this guy had just blown. They closed immediately after I snapped
this picture and the orifice nearly disappears.

The night of our failed whale rescue, the crew aboard The Rose felt anxious about the whale out there drifting through the night, entangled. They were distressed when they heard us tell our story from that day, and they weren’t willing to give up hope, even after their failed search at dusk. Before retiring for the night, John and Pat and their two friends decided they would raise anchor on their Peterson 46 and head out for another search in the morning.
That night aboard Del Viento, Windy and I were also consumed with the unsettled events of the day. Lying in our berth that night, Windy studied the iPad and our track on the Navionics app, wishing there could have been a better outcome. Then she sat up with a realization, “That whale isn’t drifting south with the wind and swells, he’s drifting north, against them.” Indeed, the squiggly yellow line on the screen showed us approaching the whale from the south, moving all about it and around it in circles, and then leaving the whale from a point north. Without any sense of the currents, this was exactly the opposite of what we all assumed, earlier in the evening studying the iPad track aboard The Rose. It was counterintuitive because it seemed that anything without a motor would have been pushed south. It makes sense that she saw what we all didn’t see, given her 10-year stint making maps for National Geographic. Unfortunately, our dusk search had been in the wrong area.

Eating breakfast aboard Del Viento the next morning, we heard The Rose hauling their anchor. We went up on deck. Across the water they told us they were headed back out to search for the whale. We shouted to them that they should search in a northerly direction from the coordinates we gave them the day before. “The whale isn’t drifting south!”
“Really?!” It didn’t make sense to them either, but Windy told them about our new perspective based on the iPad track. Full of new hope, we told them we were right behind them and began raising our anchor to join in the search.

This pod of whales swam around us for twenty minutes off Isla Isabel while
we stood off a half mile from the whale in distress, having finally freed our anchor.

But our anchor was fouled. We spent 30 minutes pulling at it with the boat from four different directions, no luck. We were stuck. On the radio, we heard the excited call from The Rose, “We found the whale and it’s still alive! John’s going in the water and we could use assistance.” At this time, Mark from Three Hour Tour came by in his kayak to ask if he could help us in any way to retrieve our anchor. Three Hour Tour arrived in the anchorage after all of the drama from the day before and wasn’t monitoring our working channel; he had no idea about the situation nor our anxiety to get out there and help The Rose. We filled him in quickly and Windy urged, “Please don’t help us, help them!”

A ray up close. Yesterday we
saw rays doing acrobatics
for the first time, full loops.
Within minutes, Mark and his wife and their two college-age children stopped their day, raised their anchor, and were headed out to sea. Close behind him was the other boat in our anchorage, Boomer.
Aboard Del Viento, I pulled off my shirt and put on a mask to solve our own problem. Twenty-five feet down, I found our chain wrapped around a short rock pinnacle and beyond that our 66-pound Bruce anchor tucked neatly under a rock shelf. I unwound the chain and then stood on the bottom and dragged the Bruce out onto a clear sandy patch. I shot to the surface and asked Windy to raise it quickly, before it fouled again. She was distracted by all of the traffic on the radio.

Pat aboard The Rose was worried about John. He is roughly ten years my senior and had been in the water with the whale for a while. He was tired and cold. She was requesting that other boats contact the Mexican navy for assistance, or whether other cruisers were in the area and were willing to dive into the water with the whale.

Windy looked at me, “I totally understand if you don’t want to, but do you want to?” I felt trapped between really wanting to and really feeling it wasn’t a good idea. I thought hard and even reasoned that with more boats and support (John’s friend was near him in their dinghy, with mask and fins on, ready to jump in if he needed help), things wouldn’t seem as dangerous as they did to me the day before. John was in the water without a life vest too, which made the task much more doable. I went back and forth in my mind, “Let’s motor out there.”
As we started out, radio traffic from The Rose urged the two boats out there then to stand off and asked that other boats avoid the area to avoid spooking the whale. Then we heard that Mark’s 20-something son from Three Hour Tour was going into the water to assist. We hung back about a half-mile away, eager for information as the story unfolded and ready to assist.

Underwater with the whale, John heard the same squeaking I heard and felt the same fear that I felt. But after a while, and after getting spooked a few times by erratic movements by the whale, John finally got angry. He said he felt like one of those doctors on TV who begin screaming at their ER patients, “You will not die on me man, not on my watch!” Something clicked and he became resigned to whatever might happen, pushed his trepidation aside, and went for it. John began swimming deep, underneath the belly of the whale, at least 15 feet below the surface. He could then see there was no heavy weight holding the fluke down as I reported. He saw that the whale was hogtied, lead-weighted polypropylene and monofilament stretched tight between its tail and snout, ensnarling one pectoral fin. This made it difficult for the whale to breath, having to raise its head against the restraining netting to catch a breath.

John cut from the snout, dove and cut line repeatedly from the belly and under the pectoral fin until…the whale literally sprung out of its restraints and the remaining netting and lines fell away.

And then we heard the call over the radio, “He’s free! They did it! The whale is swimming away, free from the netting!” Jubilation from the four boats boomed over channel 77. Windy said she felt a tremendous emotional load lifted.

It occured to me later that all 15 crew aboard Boomer, Del Viento, The Rose, and Three Hour Tour can rest easy knowing that, for the rest of our lives, no matter where we are, we never have to spend a dime on one of those whale watching tour boat trips.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Later that day we all heard another call over channel 16: another tangled whale was spotted and a cruising boat was standing by, but looking for assistance. I jumped aboard The Rose with my mask and fins and we headed out for the two-hour trip to that location. But en route we learned that the whale was dead—and had been as the cruiser that spotted the whale reported that they never saw it blow. From the smell they described, we reasoned that it was the same dead whale spotted a day earlier on the same drift path. We turned back.

So, over a three day period, four whales were found by cruisers trapped in nets. Three were saved and one was not. How many were not found? How many are never found? Looking across the huge expanse of ocean, that we nearly ran down the whale we came across, is incredibly unlikely. Even if we’d seen him blow from a distance while under sail, we would not have gone to investigate, it would have been just another whale sighting and we would have continued on, unawares.
There is no way to feed seven billion people by rod and reel, but nets are indiscriminate and this situation wasn’t right. Can nets be monitored? Can they be designed to prevent these kinds of unintended consequences? Should there be a moratorium on nets deployed during the time of year whales transit an area?  

The second day of the whale save was a coordinated effort. Boomer (on the left) and
Three Hour Tour both shared in the triumph. Inexplicably, I don't have any pics
of The Rose, a Peterson 46, nor her crew. In this picture, everyone is returning
from the whale rescue but stopped short to observe a pod of four whales cavorting
around us. The whales did barrel rolls and seemed to slide over the tops of one
another in play. There was a calf too. Notice everyone standing on their decks
to observe, though the whales didn't come out in this shot.


  1. Wow..Thanks for that update. So glad to hear the rescue was completed..what an emotional post!

    You had me on the edge of my seat.

    It's a good thing ya'll did!

  2. That was....amazing. Before I just liked reading your I have a new hero.

  3. Spectacular ending for one lucky whale, thanks to Windy's experience and rechecking her i-pad data. It's good to finally meet the crew of Del Viento in La Paz. A wonderful family on their own great adventure.

  4. An amazing story. I've enjoyed your stories since you've moved to Mexico, but this one (both parts) tops them all. It definitely helps to motivate us leaving this summer. Happy travels.

  5. Well, I am SO relieved to read that the whale was saved! That is fantastic. I do wonder, though, just how much of that polypropylene netting is drifting around out there in the vastness of the oceans for so many animals to become entangled? There must be TONS of it and that is shocking to think about. Anyway, very well done to all of you for saving that whale. That's amazing.

  6. Loved to read of the positive outcome, thanks for sharing this story with us - take care

  7. Uplifting and sad all at once. I'm so dismayed at the number of whales reported trapped and just keep rolling the same questions over in my many do we never hear about at all? Is this why I'm having trouble buying fish lately?

  8. Amazing. Well done! Riveting.

  9. What an experience! We've only seen one hurt whale in our travels - a young sperm whale bleeding, no doubt, from a prop blade. It's heart breaking. What a joyous outcome for you, for your girls... and especially for the whales! I'm positive that they will never forget your kindness. Hoping to meet you south - as soon as we get back in the water!

  10. Thank you to you all. One of the greatest gifts we get from cruising is the opportunity to be a part of these beautiful animals' world. We will be in the Northern Sea all this season as we have boat work to be done so we are missing "our" whales. Thank you for keeping us connected. Thank you for the hard work and risks assumed in saving this one. If only we could get rid of the nets!


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