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The Strait Story -- Dave Mattila's Tale

Dave Mattila Disentangles Humpback

Dave Mattila disentangles the humpback Overcast during a 2001 rescue in the sanctuary.

In my twenty years of studying whales on the Stellwagen Bank, I’ve 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.

After 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 couldn’t 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 fog.

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.

 

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