After a sighting near Loch Sport sparked a nearly week-long search, a humpback whale entangled in fishing lines was freed on Saturday afternoon off the coast of Marlo by an Incident Management Team (IMT) .

On Sunday, June 23, an entangled humpback whale was sighted about 18km from Loch Sport. The whale, which was about 18 metres in length, was first spotted by helicopter crews flying to offshore platforms.

The Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) the next day, established the IMT to find the whale and get ready for a disentanglement operation. DEECA appealed to the public to report any sightings of the whale, but urged those in boats to keep a distance of at least 200 metres for safety reasons. The whale also posed a potential navigational hazard for mariners.

When seen on June 23, the whale was moving slowly northward, parallel with Ninety Mile Beach. Photos: Contributed

Incident Controller Ellen Dwyer said a helicopter searched for two days between Wilsons Promontory and Point Hicks but was unable to find the whale.

“A DEECA specialised whale disentanglement crew, including staff from Victorian Fisheries Authority and Parks Victoria, were on standby at Lakes Entrance to remove the ropes and lines if it was located,” she said.

Water Police officers deployed in a 14.7 metre offshore vessel VP09 with a specialist team from DEECA, Victorian Fishing Authority and Parks Victoria to attach a tracking device to the whale.

“These crew members are trained to deal safely with entangled whales. After an assessment, the crew makes a determination on the best course of action. The safety of the crew is always our priority when making assessments.”

DEECA says it wasn’t until the afternoon of Friday, June 28 that the whale was spotted again near Lakes Entrance. Victoria Police said it was found by a recreation vessel about 4.5 nautical miles from Lake Tyers. The IMT’s aim was to remove 200 metres of rope and line, as well as 11 floatation buoys that were attached to the whale, which it may have towed all the way from Antarctica.

Ms Dwyer said specialised whale disentanglement crews, including staff from DEECA, Victorian Fisheries Authority and Parks Victoria, had attached a telemetry buoy to the whale on Friday, allowing them to track its location.

Most of the rope was freed from the whale to allow it to continue its journey along the east coast of Australia.

On Saturday morning, the crews caught up with the whale, 24 kilometres off the coast of Marlo in East Gippsland, where they began the disentanglement.

“By Saturday afternoon, the bulk of the ropes and buoys had been removed, allowing the whale to continue its migration along the east coast of Australia,” she said.

“Unfortunately, a smaller section of rope could not be removed and was still trailing from the whale.”

Police said the team were able to use smaller boats to get in close enough to the ailing whale to “successfully cut approximately 800kg of tangled ropes and buoys from the animal”.

Police used a crane to lift the heavy fishing tackle out of the water to ensure it didn’t become a hazard for any other vessels or marine life.

Ms Dwyer said the disentanglement crews worked in difficult conditions to free the whale.

“Our crews, with the help of a Victoria Water Police and Victorian Fisheries Authority support vessels, performed their work professionally and with the utmost care for the whale’s welfare. Working in the open ocean during winter with one of the world’s largest animals isn’t an everyday job, but they have managed to achieve a great outcome,” she said.

“We place a heavy emphasis on training and crew safety, so it was great to achieve the desired result with everyone returning safely back to shore.”

There was about 200 metres of rope and fishing buoys wrapped around the mammal, which restricted its capacity to swim.

Water Police Inspector James Dalton said it wasn’t a normal day in the office for his team.

“Normally police are searching for missing people or vessels in waterways, so this was a completely different kind of search for us,” he said.

“The whale was so tightly tangled in the ropes and it wasn’t travelling very far so we knew it was in real distress. To safely cut the ropes away, we needed to return the following day to ensure we could successfully remove enough of the rope that it could swim freely again.

“This was a huge team effort and we’re so happy that it had a great outcome.”

Ms Dwyer said DEECA was investigating the origin of the fishing equipment, with an initial analysis indicating that it was from an international vessel. “It is possible that the whale became was entangled during its summer feeding season off Antarctica and has been dragging it while it is undertaking its seasonal migration,” she added.

Abandoned, Lost, Discarded Fishing Gear (ALDFG) is a global problem affecting entire ecosystems and directly affecting animals such as whales. Humpbacks migrate up to 10,000 kilometres each year from the rich feeding grounds near Antarctica to the warmer waters of northern Australia where they calve and mate.

Members of the public are encouraged to report all whale and dolphin incidents or strandings, either alive or dead, to the DEECA Whale and Dolphin Emergency Hotline on 1300 136 017.

Public in boats must stay at least 200 metres from whales and should not attempt to disentangle.

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