Monday, February 14, 2011

Whale Tales Part I: Ballena Valentina

This has been a Valentine's Day to remember, and I don't think the Humpback whale we named "Valentina" will forget this day either.

Today was our first day out on water with our friends Heather and Michael Fishbach, and their son, Gaelan. We are staying with them in the town of Loreto in Baja, Mexico, and partaking in a week-long whale tour that they host out in the Sea of Cortez. Today was a beautiful day; the perfect day to be on the water. The sun was shining, the water was like glass, and we had already seen several whales when Michael spotted something that looked like a log floating out in the water. This seemed strange since we are in the middle of the desert and there's not a tree in sight, so we drove closer to investigate. We soon realized that it was a humpback whale trapped in a fishing net.

We first thought that it was dead because it was not moving, but after a few long moments it took a breath, and we knew that we had to try and save this whale's life.

Michael radioed for backup, and proceeded to get into the frigid water with a snorkel and George's pocketknife (the only knife on the boat - go Boy Scout training!)

From that vantage point, Michael was able to assess the severity of the entanglement better, and he determined that the situation was very grim. The whale's pectoral fins were pinned to her side, her dorsal fin was cut from the net, and her tail was also entangled; thus she was barely able to stay afloat and breathe.

He tried to communicate that he was there to help, but she was very distressed and fully immobilized. Michael was able to successfully cut the net off her dorsal fin, which allowed the whale a little more movement.

The whale's improved movement enabled her to come closer to our boat, and at one point she lifted the boat a few inches as she took a breath right under us. George and Alberto (our wonderful boat-driver) grabbed the net from the whale's back and started pulling and cutting it off her. Thus pulling and cutting went on for about 30 minutes, and as the whale was gainging more freedom, she was able to swim better and dive deeper. When she would surface for a breath, "Slasher George" would quickly slash the net while Michael and Alberto pulled it. After taking a breath, the whale would attempt to div, and the guys held onto the net with all their strength. We were pulled on a true "Nantucket Sleigh Ride", but this time we were trying to save a whale rather than kill one.

Finally, the last of the net was cut away, and "Valentina" swam free. Click here to see the 4 minute video of the "final cut". Our heroic efforts were rewarded with an unbelievable display of full-body breaching.

After about a half-hour of breaching, she started to writhe and roll around on the surface of the water, flapping her huge pectoral fins in the air and slapping them on the surface of the water.

After awhile, we decided to leave her in peace and started to drive away; but then she started "tail lobbing", and we quickly returned to watch the next act. She would raise her fluke (tail) high above the water and repeatedly splash the water with powerful strength. She would do this in a belly-down position and then spin around and repeat her tail lobbing while in a belly-up position. In this short video, her back is toward the surface.

Now she is tail-lobbing while belly-up.

This part of the show was most curious to me, and I'm not sure exactly why she was doing it. I can only take her actions to be ones of joy and freedom. I think little Gaelan described it best when he said, "I know what she's doing! She's showing us how happy she is to be free!"

It was an incredible and unforgettable experience, one that I will treasure in my memories. It is also deeply disturbing to think about how many nets are lurking in our seas and oceans, killing innumerable whales and other marine mammals and sea-creatures who are not the targets for our dinner plates. It's enough to make any seafood lover want to sacrifice her taste-buds for the good of the sea, which is an especially hard thing to do in the land of fish tacos.

The net that entangled "Valentina" was actually a shark net, illegally placed in the National Marine Park which "protects" the sea around Loreto. It measured 12 x 200 feet. It lacerated the skin on her tail and removed a chunk of her dorsal fin. She will be scarred for life, but she is among the lucky few of her kind that have escaped the full wrath of our nets. I wish her many more safe and successful trips to Alaska and back!

Thanks to Michael Fishbach for sharing his photos and tail-lobbing videos!


  1. Without the video and pictures I'm not sure I would believe this story. Amazing. Talk about "saving the whales"!

  2. that gave me goose bumps! thanks for sharing.

  3. Van Evans and Peg say you were the heroes of the day!