The disentanglement team at the Center for Coastal Studies might be forgiven for some off-color jokes. Dozens of whales get tangled in fishing gear each year. The results can be grizzly – wounds that cut to the bone, infections, starvation – if not deadly. And attempting to free entangled whales is both physically and emotionally exhausting, not to mention dangerous. What’s not to joke about?
“I have found that humor has been one of our strongest allies in a very difficult situation,” said Scott Landry, director of the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team at the Center for Coastal Studies.
It’s not every day that gallows humor leads to life-saving technological breakthroughs, though.
“We kept running into cases of right whales, especially, that had a wrap of rope around their upper jaw,” recalled Landry. “That's the thinnest part of a right whale’s body. It's essentially their Achilles heel. They also feed with their mouth open for hours on end, so they are especially prone to getting rope in the mouth.”
Mouth entanglements have killed a lot of North Atlantic right whales over the years. They are also particularly difficult for Landry and his team to remove, because whales apparently don’t like having a boat full of people with knives poking around near their heads. They get evasive and erratic. (Go figure.)
The frustration of having a box full of tools and still not being able to help whales in a potentially deadly tangle finally led to a fatalistic joke, which led to an ah-ha moment.
“We have bazillions of knives of all different shapes and sizes and we thought ‘Okay, why don't we just take the whole box and just throw it at the whale's head and hope that one of these knives gets the rope?’” Landry recalls. “And from a bit of gallows humor it took us two years to develop an arrow that cuts rope, so we can deploy it from a crossbow and shoot it out at a whale’s entanglement and never have to touch the whale.”
To add to the unlikely humor, the inspiration for Landry’s arrow came from a turkey hunter in Texas who had developed an arrow nicknamed the “gobbler guillotine.” (Go ahead, look it up on YouTube. I dare you.) It’s essentially an arrow with four razor blades in an X pattern on the head. To get it to fly true, the blades are covered with plastic coffee stirrers. (Seriously. You couldn’t make this stuff up.)
“It was his hunting innovation, and it works,” Landry said. “And we thought 'Well, certainly if he can do that, we can cut 3/8-inch rope.'”
The disentanglement team had to make some modifications to use the arrow with a crossbow, and then they had to demonstrate that it would work. They did that by wrapping some rope around the carcass of a fin whale that washed up on the shore of Cape Cod Bay and shooting it off. Then, they got permission to try it on a live whale.
That was Wart. Estimated to be in her forties, Wart had been a regular mother, giving birth to a number of calves. But, as of 2010, she’d been entangled for three years and, as Landry put it, “there was no reproductive activity going on.”
The gobbler-guillotine-turned-whale-liberator changed that.
“The rope is under tension. So, all you have to do is just hope you even nicked the rope, and it essentially explodes under pressure. And the whale had no idea it was coming,” Landry explained. “It happened within a second and a half and it was all over.”
Two years later, Wart gave birth to a calf right in Cape Cod Bay (an oddity, in itself, since calves are usually born farther south).
The team has used the crossbow technique four more times, most recently in April of this year. Three out of those five disentanglements have been successful.
“Like every one of our techniques, they're not 100 percent successful,” Landry said. “But we never have to touch the whale. All we have to do is get within 60 or 70 feet of it, at the closest, and it's really, really, really safe.”
All that, from one joke.