Whale Tales

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Steve Honeysett

The recent whale incident in Zinkwazi has inspired me to wright about what I know about whales.

Not all whale stories have to end on a sad note even when there was a time when the world thought they would go extinct.

Human intervention with the world ban on wailing in the 80’s and 90’s has seen their numbers bounce back each year where more and more whales visit our shores from around August through to November   .

Being a lifeguard does not only entail saving people from drowning, it also comes with the responsibility of assisting distressed sea animals where we can.

They say that there is no greater feeling than saving a fellow human from drowning. Well, that’s true but there is also a great sense of feeling when one saves an animal from the same fate.

About 12 years back I got an early morning call that a whale calf had got caught in the Thompsons Bay shark nets and there was a very distraught mother whale frantically trying to help her calf.

The local meshing officer was already there and he had called out their team of whale release experts to assist from their base in Umhlanga as well as us with our small inflatable rescue boat to standby in the event of something going wrong.

On arrival we noticed the calf stuck in the net on the surface and just behind a very distraught mother whale desperate to save her calf, bellowing and charging down the boat that was trying to get in to cut the calf free.

The decision was made to use our inflatable rather than their hard fibreglass boats, as this would allow them edge their way along the net without the engine on which would calm both the whales down   .

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As we pulled our way closer to the calf the mother became agitated and charged down on us only to turn away from the net at the last minute I recall the absolute size of her and thought how wrong things could go if she powered through the net. She could easily take us both out and, with a flick of the tail, she could knock us all the way back on to the beach like a rugby ball being kicked through the posts.

She was probably telling us to hurry up.

But after a few runs like that, she began to show less aggression towards us and it seemed she had begun to trust us to get her calf free. She swam slowly up and down the net as we started cutting the calf free.

Quick and experienced work by the shark’s board officers soon had the job done. The little whale was free and the two other boats were called in to escort both mother and calf away from danger and out to sea

It was then that I realised, as we drove alongside both whales, that the mother was showing appreciation for what we had done by the sound she made as she blew out her air as if she was talking to us.

Yes that was truly a happy ending, but another story comes to mind about the whale that got the last laugh on us.

Sometimes a whale sits with his tail sticking out of the water and can stay like that for hours on end.

On an early winter’s morning in August, when the sun was peeping over the horizon, I had just arrived in the office when the phone rang and there was a frantic Sheffield Beach resident reporting a plane in the ocean with its tail sticking straight into the air.

Well I have heard them all, but this one, well… I had to check it out for myself.  So off I went to investigate and, as I drove into the car park outside Villa Royal flats, my eyes popped out their sockets. I saw a plane’s tail sticking out of the water.

It was real enough to haul out my binoculars to get a better look and… there it was… and my heart kicked into race mode. By then, other rescue services had arrived and they confirmed what I had been looking at. Now we were all sure that there was a plane in the water.

Racing back to launch the rescue boat I wondered what had happened and who might be still trapped inside this plane. I suppose those are thoughts all rescue workers face when on their way to an accident.

So we launched the inflatable and were off like General Custer riding out with his soldiers to do battle, the boat at full revs, bouncing from wave crest to wave crest on our way to save the day.

Only a few hundred meters from the plane the tail sunk beneath the surface and a whale with a big grin popped out his head to see what all the commotion was about.

Boy, were we embarrassed that day and for how we got that wrong, we were made to pay for drinks all round on us.

There have been many whale encounters, some memorable like these two stories and many more where we have cut them loose from nets or cut off fishing nets while they are on the move, and even pushing a small calf off the beach back into the surf to swim off to the safety of the great ocean .

I may not be a whale expert or a whale whisperer, but it’s what I know about whales that makes me love the ocean.

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