Strait Story -- Dave Mattila's Tale
Mattila disentangles the humpback Overcast during a 2001 rescue
in the sanctuary.
In my twenty years of studying whales on the Stellwagen Bank,
Ive gathered a lot of memories that make for great stories.
These aren't cowboy stories or epic tales of great voyages.
If anything, my strongest memories are of the subtle beauty
of the Bank, and of the vast and still largely unexplored world
of its inhabitants.
One foggy summer day in 1992, the Center for Coastal Studies
got a call from a local whalewatching company. One of their
vessels had spotted a whale at the furthest reaches of the Sanctuary
that was entangled in the line and buoy from a gill net. The
whale, a juvenile male named "Strait," was lying motionless
at the surface, occasionally making a low trumpeting noise from
his blowhole--an indication of distress, some believe.
We set out immediately in two small Zodiac inflatable boats.
In the late eighties, we had only recently developed the technique
to disentangle whales and had just gotten officialauthorization
from the National Marine Fisheries Service to do it. Local whalewatching
groups quickly learned to call on us if they came across a snared
whale. We did not yet have the kind of boats and equipment for
the job that we do today. The Zodiacs were the only boats we
had at our disposal.
It took us about two hours to get out to the whale where a research
vessel was standing by. As we traveled, a dense fog surrounded
the boat. As is sometimes the case on a foggy or overcast day,
the bounty of the Bank was visible at the surface, as hundreds
of birds swooped down to catch sand lance (a small pencil-thin
bait fish) feeding at the surface. As a bird passed, a fish
underneath it would jump to escape. The jumping fish looked
like so many rain drops underneath a cloud of birds.
We found Strait about twenty miles from shore. We came in close
enough to survey the entanglement. I leaned over the side of
the boat and through a mask, looked at the lines. We cut the
lines with a knife on a long pole--a technique we still use
so we don't have to send down a diver. But even after we cut
the lines that restrained him, Strait didn't budge an inch.
I had the feeling that he was in shock from the whole experience.
We decided we had better get a closer look to rule out the possibility
that the animal was still somehow attached to line. But as I
gazed under the water, the boat drifted a little too close to
the animal. My partner realized our mistake; he revved the motor
in preparation to move.
Without warning, Strait picked up his 500 pound tail and ...CRASH!...
slammed it down on my half of the boat. Fortunately, I'd expected
some kind of a reaction from Strait when I heard the motor rev
and had instinctively ducked down into the boat. His tail landed
right on top of me, but the wall pontoons of the vessel protected
me from its full force.
he struck the boat, Strait immediately swam away.
My partner and I sat stunned for a few minutes. Then, realizing
that no harm had been done, we prepared for our triumphant return
to land. We had (even if unintentionally) broken Strait of his
stupor, and twilight had begun to set in on the Bank.
But our day was far from over. The research vessel chose this
time to tell us that they wouldn't be returning to our harbor
and couldnt give us a much needed tow back.
With scanty navigational equipment and a long dark journey ahead,
we set off for Provincetown. We found our way back by following
the moon, which peeked down on us through a dense canopy of
We have disentangled over 30 whales since Strait. But somehow
that foggy day still burns in my memory--a true testament to
the almost surreal beauty and, at times, unexpected danger that
resides at the Bank. But beyond that, the rescue has come to
symbolize just how fragile and poorly understood the ocean environment
can be. For such an immense animal to be in shock over a tiny
little rope seems unlikely. Still, nets disturb large whales
and other sea mammals all the time--much more often than we
have suspected. Such an experience truly underscores the importance
of marine research. Perhaps in time we will better understand
these enigmatic creatures and learn how to coexist peacefully
in their world.