Ten Day Rescue of Four Blue Whales in Indonesia
By Femke den Haas
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute
& Jakarta Animal Aid Network
It took our team ten days to help guide four of the world’s largest and most endangered animals back to the open ocean.
This unique rescue operation started with a phone call reporting that five blue whales were trapped inside a bay and could not get out. The reporter was afraid the whales would surely die within the shallow bay without food and being exposed to the extreme conditions such as heat and severe stress.
The location of this bay was quite far away, and the island where the whales were trapped is known for its whaling activities in certain areas. The villagers usually would not hunt baleen whales, but toothed whales are hunted, despite attempted interventions from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the government. Our team has observed a pregnant orca being hunted and killed by the villagers. The view of this adult orca in a pool of blood with her unborn infant remains a nasty memory.
But the blue whales were trapped near a different village on another side of the island, and we hoped that the villagers here would be supportive of the rescue. Fortunately, they were, as for the first two days some assisted with their small canoes crossing the wild waters during the rescue operation.
Our Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN) team rushed to the location to see four beautiful blue whales, sized 35 meters, and one infant, sized 20 meters, inside the bay. We consulted with the Indonesian marine mammal rescue network leaded by Benjamin Kahn (Apex), who advised us on how to make a sound-wall, to help guide the whales back in the right direction, to the open ocean. (Ironically, it is a method used in Taiji, Japan, to drive dolphins to their deaths.) A lot needed to be organized; boats, people, equipment to make sounds, etc.
Beginning on October 17th, the five blue whales were stuck in the shallow waters. "They might have fled from orca’s in the area, as we have witnessed them recently,” said the whale expert Kahn. “Indonesia and Banda Sea are a critical habitat; the whales migrate through Nusa tengara Timur (Eastern Indonesia).”
Danielle Kreb, from the Indonesian Marine Mammal Network, said: “They might have lost their orientation after a small earthquake had hit the area.”
Why the whales had decided to swim in to the bay, we really didn’t know. All we knew, was that they needed help, which was alarmingly confirmed when the infant died the day after our arrival, a very sad loss.
The infant died on October 23rd, after we had requested more assistance for this difficult rescue operation. Fortunately the Indonesian Navy sent more boats, as did the Indonesian Fisheries Department, for the rescue operation.
The dead body of the young whale was found on Thursday, which made us even more determined for a successful outcome for the remaining trapped blue whales. Yet the local villagers wanted to first organize prayers and ceremonies, as they believed the whales were sent by god. Not wanting to disrespect the villagers, yet also feeling the need to continue the rescue the soonest, the rescue team joined for the first prayers, after which the rescue team continued its mission. It took five more days to guide the whales slowly back to open sea.
On day four, another unique moment occurred; a patrolling boat from the Fisheries Department observed another family of blue whales approaching the bay. Were they coming to help their trapped family or friends? Were they possibly reacting to their calls of need? We could not do else than speculate, and the team had to focus on getting the trapped whales out.
Little by little the whales moved towards the exit channel, which was no more then 30 meters wide. The boats formed half a circle around the whales, and made a sound wall, slowly guiding the whales out of the bay, until one late afternoon the family all gathered in front of the exit channel. It was getting dark, the team knew they had to stop, yet they were so close. Frustrated, the team returned back to shore after sunset. But the following morning the team cheered; the whales had left the bay!
This euphoric moment came to an end when one whale was observed swimming back into the bay by midday. Why would the whale return?
The whale swam to the place where the infant had died, days earlier. We assumed this must have been the mother and that she was mourning over her loss. She kept circling the same spot.
The team decided to try and make another sound wall to guide her out, yet it was harder now as the boats we had rented from nearby village were gone, so we had less boats and people to help. The team tried, but at sunset had to stop. The following morning, ‘Mummy whale’ was still circling at the exact same spot where she had lost her infant. The team decided to leave her mourn. Maybe she would leave by herself now that she had already swam in and out of the narrow exit, so she ‘knew the way’.
Indeed, ‘Mummy whale’ left the following afternoon. She followed her family members, and we hope she is now happily reunited and picks up her life again, despite her huge loss.
Thanks to all who participated in this amazing effort!
For more information on JAAN’s work for wildlife in Indonesia, go to www.jakartaanimalaid.com.
Photos courtesy of Jakarta Animal Aid Network.