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Weather hampers untangling of second whale

Published: 8:26AM Thursday September 30, 2010 Source: ONE News

An early morning search for a second entangled humpback whale in the Bay of Islands was postponed due to worsening weather conditions.

A Bay of Islands Coastguard aircraft had been set to head out just after 7am this morning to locate the whale. 

The search was to include Department of Conservation staff in a DOC boat, joined by Ingrid Visser of Orca Research in her boat.

Reports yesterday indicated the animal is between 12-15 metres long and has rope and a clear plastic buoy entangled around its mouth. 

DOC biodiversity programme manager in the Bay of Islands, Adrian Walker, said a 20 knot north easterly and rain with poor visibility forced the team to postpone their search.

But DOC appreciated sightings from tour boat operators in the Bay of Islands.

"Two commercial tourism operators with much larger vessels are still able to operate, so we have asked them to keep an eye out and alert us of any sightings," he said.

A DOC vessel was also operating and keeping an eye out for the animal and a navy vessel currently in the Bay had also been alerted. 

Walker said DOC would continue to monitor the weather conditions and have the team on standby to launch a rescue operation, should conditions change and a positive sighting be made.

"Trying to locate the whale in the Bay of Islands without aerial support is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack" he said.

The DOC team currently on standby were involved in an operation late yesterday to free another humpback whale with seine net wrapped around its head and tail. 

Mike Morrissey from DOC's Kaikoura Area Office, is heading the operation, with support from Ingrid Visser of Orca Research.

Morrisey has experience in a technique to free entangled marine mammals called 'kegging'  which was used yesterday to free an entangled humpback whale.

It involves hooking a grapnel hook onto debris wrapped around the whale, then attaching large windy buoys to hooks along a 50 metre rope. 

Once the buoys are attached the boat follows the whale until it tires itself out.  After the whale is sufficiently exhausted, staff attach the boat onto the rope and remove the buoys, then edge along the rope until they are close enough to reach over with a long pole and curved knife to remove the debris.

DOC said humpback whales are inquisitive by nature and like to play with crayfish pots, which can lead to entanglement. 

The department said although there have been cases of entangled humpbacks in New Zealand, mainly in Kaikoura, it's not a major issue at present.  The last recorded entanglement before this one was in 2008.

The current situation was a remarkable coincidence.  Yesterday's humpback appeared to be entangled in seine net, whereas the current one may have entangled itself in a crayfish pot.