Puerto Lopez

Humpback whales are freeing our hearts

It was a Sunday afternoon when a woman sent me a text message explaining that she had been observing whales on land with binoculars in Ayampe (20 minutes away from Puerto Lopez). Unfortunately, during her whalewatching, she spotted an entangled whale trailing yellow buoys, which are commonly used on nets in the area. She further explained that the net was draped over the whales back, and it was almost stranding near Ayampe beach.

A terrible sensation flooded me as I rushed to call the Machalilla National Park whale entanglement rescue team. The team, including myself, were ready in no time and went out into a really choppy ocean with high hopes of finding and freeing the whale. After about an hour of looking, we finally spotted the distressed animal fairly close to shore. It appeared to be struggling to get the net away from its mouth, closing and opening it with a comprehensible amount of desperation and fear.

Following the usual procedure the team started to add buoys to the entanglement, hoping the added weight would tire the whale so it would stay at the surface. This would then allow the team to be able to remove the net using long poles and sharp blades. Unfortunately, while attempting to cut through the large amount of net around the whale’s fluke, the cutting knife became dislodged and was lost in the ocean. This was difficult as the knife was specially made by NOAA and donated to us to use when freeing entangled whales. With no other options, the rescue team started using hooks made by the park rangers of Machalilla National Park. One by one, these hooks made with steel started to bend from the heavy netting. The whale at this time had so much bunched netting that the pressure of trying to cut it was futile. This was by far the most difficult rescue we had experienced and the bunched netting was too strong for our blades.

Soon the day started fading away and we started losing hope and realized we needed additional help. One of the park rangers and rescue team member decided to call his brother, who was a diving fisherman, and asked him to come and help. When he arrived, his team was ready to help. They put on their dive gear and cautiously got into the water with the helpless whale. It took about 4 more hours of risky direct contact with the stressed whale to take most of the net off and free the pectoral fins. When this happened, the whale recovered its strength and started swimming fast and trying to dive. We realized this was the time to let go, as it was getting dark and was going to be almost impossible for us to remove the last bit of remaining net around its flukes. Hopefully, the remaining gear will untangle or detach by itself.

We watched the whale swim away looking much less distressed and welcoming its regained freedom. In the middle of the ocean we lay there, tired, hungry and cold, but satisfied we did everything we could to help the whale. Nothing could take that satisfaction away from us. Not only did we free the whale from a slow and tragic death, but we had also comforted a bit of our own guilt, as the whale was caught in our man-made netting.

I would like to thank the special people of Machalilla National Park whale entanglement team and the fishermen who were able to come and help. Thank you for dedicating your time and even risking your lives to this noble effort of giving another opportunity to these gentle giants of the sea. Whales are definitely freeing our hearts.

Las ballenas jorobadas estan liberando nuestros corazones

Era una domingo por la tarde cuando una señora me escribio a mi celular. Ella habia estado observando ballenas con binoculares desde Ayampe, a tan solo 20 minutos de Puerto Lopez. No traia buenas noticias: ella habia observado una ballena enredada en redes de pesca con las caracteristicas boyas amarillas alrededor de su cuerpo, muy cercana a varar en las playas de Ayampe.

Una terrible sensación inmediatamente me invadio mientras me apresure a llamar al equipo de rescate del Parque Nacional Machalilla. Pronto estuvimos listos para zarpar en busca de la ballena. Despues de casi 1 hora de busqueda, finalmente la encontramos muy cerca a la orilla, luchando por deshacerse de la red que envolvia su rostro, mandibula y aletas pectorales, abriendo y cerrando la boca con un comprensible nivel de desesperacion y miedo.

Siguiendo el procedimiento habitual, el equipo empezo a amarrar boyas a la ballena, en un intento de cansarla y calmarla, para que permanezca en la superficie y que ellos sean capaces de cortar la red utilizando un tubo largo y una cuchilla especial. Debido a la enorme cantidad de red entrelazada en la cola de la ballena, la gran cantidad de presion al tratar de cortarla hizo que perdieramos la cuchilla especial que el equipo de rescate de ballenas de NOAA nos habia donado en años anteriores, de modo que tuvimos que reemplazar estas con unas cuchillas artesanales que los guardaparques del Parque Nacional Machalilla habian desarrollado para esta causa. Una por una, esas cuchillas, hechas de acero, comenzaron a doblarse…SI, a doblarse. La ballena tenia tanta red amontonada en su cola que la presion al intentar cortarla era demasiada…una presion que no habiamos experimentado antes, y que era mucho mas fuerte que nuestras cuchillas.

Pronto, el dia empezaba a esfumarse, junto con nuestras esperanzas..necesitabamos ayuda. Uno de los guardapaques del equipo llamo a su hermano, pescador buzo de Puerto Lopez, y le pidio ayuda. Cuando llegaron, el equipo de rescate no dudo en ningun momento: al instante usaron el equipo de compresion y tomaron las mangueras para sumergirse a bucear con la tan necesitada ballena. Tomo 4 horas mas de un peligroso contacto directo con la estresada ballena para removerla mayoria de la red de pesca y finalmente liberar sus aletas pectorales. Cuando esto ocurrio, la ballena recupero su fuerza e inmediatamente empezo a nadar rapido y a tratar de sumergirse. Entonces nos dimos cuenta que ya era tiempo de dejarla ir..el dia se estaba oscureciendo e iba a resultar casi imposible ya removerle el ultimo resto de cuerda alrededor de su cola…el cual ojala con el tiempo se desenrede o degrade por si solo.

Finalmente, observamos a la ballena irse nadando..ya no con movimientos bruscos ni de inconformidad, sino simplemente de nado y bienvenida a su libertad recuperada. En la mitad del oceano, alli yaciamos, cansados, hambrientos y con frio…pero satisfechos. Ni siquiera la sensacion mas perturbadora podria quitarnos esa satisfaccion tan inmensa. No solamente habiamos librado a una ballena de una muerte lenta y tragica….tambien habiamos consolado un poco de nuestra culpa…la culpa de cada uno de nosotros los humanos, responsables por el daño que les hacemos a estas maravillosas criaturas, y al mundo entero. Agradezco a las personas especiales del equipo de rescate de ballenas del Parque Nacional Machalilla, y a los pescadores que siempre estan dispuestos a ayudar. Gracias por dedicarles su tiempo y hasta poner en riesgo sus vidas para este noble esfuerzo de darles una nueva oportunidad a estos gentiles gigantes del oceano. Definitivamente las ballenas estan liberando a nuestros corazones..

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