Monday, September 10, 2012

Day 26- Friday, September 7, 2012- The Biggest Fish Of Our Lives Caught Us Today!

Day 26- Friday, September 7, 2012- The Biggest Fish Of Our Lives Caught Us Today!

I’m still shaking…nine hours later! The biggest fish of our lives caught us today.  Fortunately, we are alright and the whale seems to be as well.  But, we almost lost our boat.  I still can’t believe it happened. This time, it wasn’t a silly act of mine that just about cost us our loss…it was definitely an act of God!

We woke to another beautiful, sunny, warm day anchored in a quiet little cove in Toquart Bay, in Barkley Sound.  My wife Val, our son Connor, and our two dogs Lucky and Tanner and I headed to the beach in our dinghy for some fun and exercise.  We were enjoying the beautiful morning when we heard a whale blow from afar. As we walked along the beach, the whale meandered around the bay enjoying his morning breakfast.  What a delightful experience.  Soon, the whale was close enough to warrant a brisk walk back to the dinghy to fetch the ever-present video camera.

As I readied the camera the curious whale came closer and closer.  I couldn’t believe the footage I was getting.  This whale came almost right up to us on the beach, right where I was swimming yesterday.  I didn’t think such a large whale could even swim in such shallow water. He was swimming between us and our boat and we were anchored in only about thirty feet of water.

The whale comes almost right up to us on the beach, where I was swimming yesterday.
Our delight soon turned to sheer terror as we saw the whale rocket out of the water directly in front of our boat with the anchor rode in his mouth!  Oh no!  We watched in shock as he spun around wrapping himself around our rope and jerking the boat around like a rag doll in the process.  Our 17,000 pound vessel was looking like a bathtub toy!

The whale catches our anchor rode in his mouth!
Adrenaline took over, and I instinctively jumped in the dinghy while Connor ran to join me as we launched off the beach.  I told Connor to start the video camera and not to turn it off no matter what. If something happened, I wanted an accounting.  The pictures in this story are actually captured from the video….not great quality but they tell the story pretty effectively.

The poor guy has our anchor rode wrapped around him and is tossing our boat around like a rag doll!
Approaching the boat in the dinghy, the whale became more frantic and was struggling to get free from his wrapped up mess.  We watched the suddenly small vessel shake front to back and side to side as the whale plunged up and out of the bay trying to free himself.

It’s a scary feeling watching your boat (and temporary home) getting hauled out to sea by such a large and beautiful creature struggling to free himself.  We wanted to help him so badly and save our boat too. I could hear Connor’s concern, “Oh no. What are we going to do?”  I wanted to cut the rode but I wasn't sure how to jump aboard the thrashing vessel to cut the whale loose.  There was a lull in the action and I was able to position the dinghy and jump aboard our boat while Connor backed off in the dinghy.  Unfortunately, he had to shut the camera off in order to handle the dinghy. I'm still grateful for the video he did get.

He's heading out to sea and dragging our boat with him!

Immediately, the distraught whale started lunging out of the water thrashing wildly and shaking things up. I don’t know if I was glad to be aboard or not. Certainly, I was wishing this was not happening, and the worst scenario flashed before my eyes.  It was not a good situation for the whale or for me and potentially Connor!  I quickly grabbed my big knife from the aft helm steering station to cut the $1,000 anchor rode and chain free…a small price to pay to help this magnificent creature gain his freedom.

My heart was pounding out of my chest and my legs were like rubber as I started to climb along the side of the boat keeping one hand on the railing while watching the huge animal lunge up and above me and the boat.  I can’t tell you the feelings coming over me as I feared for my life and his. I feared he would crash down on the bow injuring himself and taking out our boat windows, stanchions, or worse, my son or me!

My heart is beating out of my chest as I work my way along the side of the boat to cut the rope freeing both of us.
Here is a low-res unedited clip of the whole ordeal.  It gets pretty interesting about a minute into it.  If you're unable to play it here, I also uploaded it to YouTube.  The link is at the bottom of this page. 

As I was in the height of my terror, working my up to the bow, I heard Connor exclaim from the dingy, “He snapped the rope!  He snapped the rope!”  Oh, thank God! It’s over!  I didn’t have to go face to face with him to cut him free!

We watched as he swam away startled and confused.  Our hearts went out to him (as they definitely were not in our chests) and we prayed that he would be free from the entanglement. We could not tell if the anchor was still attached to the remaining rode or if he broke free from both ends.  However, we were grateful that at least he had broken free from the boat end of things and were hoping that would help him shake free from the anchor end as well.  We were now adrift and he was free.

As we sat there adrift in disbelief, we recounted the incredible events of the episode trying to figure out if there was anything we could have or should have done differently.  We were all incredibly shaken and completely emotionally drained. We were so thankful that the whale was free and our boat was not dragged on the rocks or smashed to bits. What power we witnessed!

After regaining our composure, I sent Connor out in the dinghy with a big grappling hook hoping to find the anchor and chain while I prepared the boat for departure.  We had 50’ of chain and about 75’ of rope out.  I was so thankful we didn’t have an all chain rode and that the whale was able to break the rope.  We were hoping, for the whale’s sake, that he had broken the rode at the anchor end as well, and for our sake, that we could recover the working end of things below. Connor came back without the anchor but with bits of whale skin that were floating in the anchorage evidencing the struggle.

I took my turn trolling for the anchor chain on the way to pick up my very excited wife and the two dogs, who were still at the beach standing in awe of what they had just witnessed.  We all headed back to the drifting vessel and counted our blessings as we readied to depart.

Obviously, our cruising plans had just changed; we have no anchor. Yet, we were incredibly thankful that we were alright, the whale seemed to be as well, and the Roamer was in fine shape, albeit anchorless.

We set off on a course to see if we could find the whale and check on his welfare as well as try to pick up a cell signal and alert the appropriate offices as to what had just happened.  About six miles out, I got a cell signal and started calling various Department of Fisheries and Oceans offices leaving messages and trying to get a hold of someone.

During this process, Val saw a spouting whale off in the distance. We motored closer to see if he was “our” whale. We approached slowly and glassed him with the binoculars. Sure enough, it was him. Thankfully, he looked to be doing just fine but still had one twist of rope around him.  He didn’t appear to be dragging the anchor.  He seemed to be enjoying his swim and showed no signs of distress.

We noted the GPS coordinates and followed him while I continued to contact the authorities. I ended up talking to an officer at the poaching hotline (the only live person I could talk to) who assured me I had done all the right things and took down the necessary information. He assured me he would take it from here and contact the local animal control folks. I offered to track the whale for a while to make sure he was alright.  I called the officer back after a few minutes and he said that he had made the necessary calls and there was nothing further for me to do.

We headed for Ucluelet where we could securely tie up to a dock. By mid-afternoon, the local officer returned my call and I gave him the unbelievable report.  He, too, assured me I had done the right things and would alert the whale watching network to keep an eye out. He explained that these guys know where the whales are and what they’re up to. Evidently, entanglement is not terribly uncommon as whales can get caught up in fish nets, crab gear, etc. They have a unit ready to assist when and if a distressed whale needs it; that made us feel even better.

This was definitely the most interesting day of the trip, if not my life. In 2010, it was a wolf encounter (see “Attacked by Wolves, Saved by Pirates, Pacific Yachting, April, 2012) and now a whale incident.  What adventures!  I wish these things wouldn’t keep happening to us but it does make for a very interesting and rich life. You know what they say about boating, “…hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror.”  We haven’t witnessed the boredom but the terror part we’re all too familiar with!

© 2012 Kent Huisken


September 25, 2012 Update-

Today, I called my main contact at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who also talked to his peers at Vancouver Animal Control-they are in charge of the whale entanglement rescues. He said that there have been many whale watching boat trips and they've all been notified to contact DFO of any entanglements. He is confident that if the whale still had any rope left on him, that it would have been reported to them several times over by now.  So, this is the best report we can have. "No news is good news", holds true in this case.  Hopefully, Mr. Whale is off enjoying the beautiful weather this fall.  Thanks for all the comments and support.