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B.C. boaters help rescue entangled humpback near Ucluelet

‘Pinky’ freed in time to head to Hawaiian breeding grounds
This humpback whale known as ‘Pinky’ can now head off to Hawaii after being rescued from entanglement near Ucluelet on Friday. (Photo - Karyssa Arnett, Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society)

The West Coast is cheering its local boating community that teamed up to help rescue a beloved mother humpback whale known regionally as ‘Pinky’ last week.

The popular humpback recently found snarled by fishing gear in Barkley Sound has been freed of her entanglement and is now ready to head to her Hawaiian breeding grounds alongside her calf.

“Once I heard that she had been freed of her entanglement, I felt a lot of relief, a lot of joy and also a lot of pride for the local community,” Sydney Dixon told the Westerly News on Sunday. “It’s such a great community out here of dedicated, hardworking people that really care about these animals, so it felt really good to know that the community coming together resulted in a happy ending.”

Dixon is the research and education director for Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society and also a zodiac skipper for Jamie’s Whaling Station. She was onboard a Jamie’s zodiac when she first spotted the distressed humpback struggling alongside a calf on Oct. 7.

“I noticed her and her calf were really sticking to the shallows and she was trailing a float,” Dixon said, adding that if she had not seen the float, she might never have known Pinky needed help.

“Unless you see a float or visible entanglement, it can be really hard to just know from behaviour that a whale is in fact entangled,” she said.

She immediately reported her sighting to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and stayed with the whale until a DFO team arrived.

She said the DFO team was unable to get a tracking tag onto Pinky before the sun went down and lost sight of both her and her calf in the darkness.

“The next morning, there was a massive relocation effort to try to find her,” Dixon said, adding the search party included SIMRS, Jamie’s, Subtidal Adventures, RCMP and DFO. “A big fleet of us went out and spread out over Barkley Sound to try to relocate this whale.”

She said the team was unable to relocate Pinky for two days and their stress magnified as the search wore on.

“There’s definitely a lot of anxiety when you see an animal that you’re emotionally attached to in distress, and frustration I would say as well with the entanglement and with fishing gear an issue for these animals,” she said. “I was really worried that we weren’t going to be able to re-sight her.”

Dixon was elated to hear Pinky had been relocated and freed of any visible entanglements on Friday, Oct. 15 and she touted the local whale watching community’s efforts to rally around and rescue the animal.

“It takes a village. There are so many people out there that really care about these animals and having trained eyes on the water that know what to look for, know how to identify whales, know their behaviour and really care about them is really beneficial,” she said.

“It’s a huge ocean out there. It would be a very daunting task for just (DFO) alone to have to canvas this huge area and look for this whale.”

Pinky is a popular staple on the West Coast’s whale roster as she reliably returns to Barkley Sound every summer to feed and Dixon noted the urgency of her rescue was intensified as searchers feared her migration to Hawaii could be delayed, or prevented altogether.

“Time was really of the essence for us to try and relocate this animal because now is the time where they will start their migration back to the breeding grounds,” she said.

Dixon hopes the incident serves as a reminder to always be responsible with fishing gear, noting that roughly 50 per cent of British Columbia’s humpback population bears scarring from entanglements.

“Fishing is obviously culturally and economically really important in our area, but the gear can be a big issue for whales,” she said. “Take responsibility for your gear. Anything you put in the ocean should be responsibly taken out of the ocean when you’re done using it because, if it’s not, it can turn into a really big problem for the animals that call that space home.”

Anyone who spots a whale in distress is urged to immediately contact DFO’s marine mammal response network at 1-800-465-4336 and, if possible, stay with the animal until help arrives.

Dixon stressed that no one should ever try to disentangle any marine mammal themselves.

“If you cut off the visible entanglement that’s at the surface, you could actually end up signing that whale’s death certificate because it would be much, much, harder for professionals to then relocate that whale and identify it as an entangled individual,” she said. “It’s really important to let the experts and the professionals do that work for both the safety of the whale and yourself.”

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