We awoke to a thick fog blanketing the northern end of Hervey Bay on the morning of Wednesday 19th August 1998. As we were preparing to leave the 'Tea Tree Beach' anchorage we received a radio call from a nearby whalewatch vessel. They had spotted a sub-adult whale, possibly a last season's calf, with a rope wrapped around and trailing from its fluke.

Our first sight of 'Ropey', the name came easily, was the eerie image of a small whale breaching out of the thick mist towards the expedition vessel 'Volante II'.

There appeared to be no impediment to Ropey being able to make a continuous series of breaches, but as the whale approached closer we could see that its fluke was not lifting normally out of the water.

Finally Ropey's fluke broke the surface near the ship and all on board could see clearly the thick rope tightly tangled around it and trailing a full body length behind the young whale.

Ropey trailing line from fluke
The larger view of this photo (Click photo to enlarge) shows the severe tissue damage to the notch area and right hand leading edge of Ropey's fluke being caused by the tightly wrapped trailing rope.
Ropey breaching in the mist Ropey  breaching alongside ship Ropey towards the ship Ropey breaching beside ship
This series of breach photos, taken from the first sighting and until Ropey approached close to the vessel, shows how low in the water the breaches were and suggests the rope was affecting Ropey's ability to breach. This may have dire survival consequences for Ropey as humpbacks often use breaching as a means to avoid predators, such as sharks and Orca whales.

Ropey's right dorsal and flank showing lice infestations and unique markings
This photo (Click photo to enlarge) of Ropey's right hand dorsal fin and flank clearly shows the brown patches of lice infestations. Evidence that Ropey's movement through the water is slower than normal. The unique pattern of white marks will help us recognise ropey in future.
The hearts of everyone on board went out to young Ropey so we decided to see if there was anything we could do to help remove the rope, but first we reported the whales situation to the Queensland Environment Protection Agency by phone.

We realised that it was unlikely we could to get close enough to Ropey from our 15 metre Expedition Vessel 'Volante II' to do anything useful.

We called our friend Mike Osmond, aboard the Pacific Whale Foundation's zodiac 'Niaad', on the radio and asked for his assistance. Being smaller their zodiac could be used to get near to Ropey

We used gaffer tape to attach a sharp knife to a long pole as a make-shift tool for Mike and his team to use to try and cut the rope. We then spent over two hours slowly following along with Ropey, watching and waiting as PWF tried patiently to get close enough to use the knife on the rope.

On several occasions Mike and his team were able to get close enough to place the knife under the rope but Ropey's quick reaction meant Mike couldn't get a sustained purchase for cutting. As midday neared, we had first sighted ropey at 0815, Mike got into the water behind Ropey and grabbed hold of the trailing rope in the hope that it might pull away, sadly it didn't. Later that afternoon we again sighted Ropey in company with a slightly older and larger sub-adult, the rope was still firmly attached.

The photos below (Click each photo to enlarge) show that the rope trailed a full body length behind Ropey. The red patches are severely damaged sections of tissue. Fortunately humpbacks have a natural ability to stem blood flow from open wounds. So there is little risk of bleeding to death. Ropey hardly lifted his under-fluke out of the water so we were lucky to get a glimpse of it to aid identification in the future.
Ropey breaching in the mist Ropey breaching in the mist Ropey breaching in the mist Ropey breaching in the mist
But this is a tale with a happy ending. Eleven days later, on Sunday 30th August, our last pod of the day turned out to be a single sub-adult. It was in 'logging mode', that is resting quietly at the surface. As we approached it slowly we could see lice infestations on its right flank and on closer inspections we saw wounds from rope burns. It was Ropey minus the rope!

The lice infestation was larger which suggests the rope had only recently fallen away. The fact that Ropey was free of the rope means the young whale has a fighting chance to fully recover. It would be comforting to think that the combined efforts of PWF and The Oceania Project Expedition participants helped dislodge the rope.

We look forward to our next encounter with Ropey, the survivor.

ASSOCIATES OF ROPEY Become a Supporting Member of The Oceania Project and add your name here......

Mike Iliff, Vicki Fay, Trish Walsh.

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