x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 13 December 2017

Divers attempt to rescue humpback whale caught in fishing net off the coast of Oman

The men, including a Dubai resident, spent three hours trying to cut the whale loose using two small knives

A group of recreational fisherman spent almost three hours trying to free a humpback whale entangled in a commercial fishing net off the coast of Oman.

Julian Husseini and his brother Edmond, both UAE residents based in Dubai, were among a group of men who spotted the whale while on a boat trip in the Sea of Oman some three hours off the coast of Muscat.

“We start approaching it and soon realize that it’s a humpback whale initially thinking it’s dead because of the lack of movement,” Julian said in an Instagram post, where he also shared videos and images of the ordeal that happened last month.

“As we get closer we see that she’s completely entangled from head to tail in a large commercial fishing net, we reach its side and the whale makes a slight movement and sprays her blowhole.”

The whale was covered in cuts and had seemingly been caught in the net for several days, if not weeks, said Julian.

A humpback whale is caught in a commercial fishing net off the coast of Muscat. Courtesy Edmond Husseini
A humpback whale is caught in a commercial fishing net off the coast of Muscat. Courtesy Edmond Husseini

The humpback whale, which may grow up 16 meters long, appeared scared and tired, he said, but would stay still at the surface long enough for the men to cut parts of it free from the netting.

“We spend the next few hours cutting away at the net and managed, with just the two small knives we had, to free her head and body.”

The task was made more difficult – and dangerous - by the whale periodically diving down and resurfacing roughly 30 metres away.

“We kept trying to grab the net but our fingers were getting caught and with the power of the whale diving down it could’ve easily ended up with one of us losing a finger or getting caught in the net,” Julian said.

The crew tried to free the whale completely but did not have the right tools and were unable to cut away the netting that had bunched by the whale’s tail.

The netting tangled around the whale's tail. Courtesy Edmond Husseini
The netting tangled around the whale's tail. Courtesy Edmond Husseini

“We did our best to help her out but we were not at all equipped for it. We spent close to 3 hours trying to free her. These nets are tough and after a while the knife blades go dull,” said Edmond.

Initially, one of the men jumped into the sea with the whale but struggled to cut the net effectively without a mask and fins. “There was a real risk that one of us would get entangled in the net ourselves and get dragged down with the whale when she took a dive,” Edmond said.

The brothers said they do not expect the whale survived much longer but reported the sighting to local authorities in the Omani capital who have since been searching for the whale to ensure it is freed of remaining net.

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“This type of commercial netting/fishing has to stop… dolphins, turtles, whales… it all gets caught up in these nets as you can see here. Nothing stands a chance,” Edmond told The National on Tuesday.

The Environment Society of Oman issued a statement last month calling for vessels to look for the whale.

The whale was last spotted 65km east off Muscat’s coast on Friday, November 11, and is presumed to be swimming slowly southwards, the statement read.

The society asked anyone who sights the whale to note the time, location and direction of travel to report it to Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs’ 24-hour wildlife emergency hotline, the ESO and Royal Omani Police Coastguard.

It warned people to keep a safe distance of 100m from the distressed whale and said not to attempt to release it themselves.

“A response team from the ministry, who are specially trained, will mobilize to respond to any reports of the whale to disentangle it,” the statement said.

The entangled whale is one of only 100 individuals of the Arabian Sea Humpback Whale population, which are classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. And around 40 per cent of the population are scarred from similar entanglements, said Julian.

Dr Ada Natoli, founder of the UAE Dolphin Project, said in such situations a person should not go into the water as the marine mammal can become dangerous and unpredictable and should contact the authorities immediately and report the location.

“I see they have done a great job and didn’t get into the water themselves which can become dangerous. If they managed to free the mouth and the flippers as it seems from the video, there are good chances that its life has been defiantly extended,” said Dr Natoli.

Whale sightings are rare in the Arabian Gulf and Sea of Oman.

In October, a female humpback whale and a small calf were sighted one kilometre off the coast of Dubai.

The sighting was the first confirmed live record of the highly-endangered species in the Arabian Gulf waters of the UAE, according to marine biologist Robert Baldwin, who studies the whales and dolphins of the UAE and Oman, according to state news agency Wam.

Two weeks ago, a dead whale was found roughly four nautical miles off Sharjah and was towed into Khor Fakkan Port. The carcass, seemingly that of a blue whale, measured between 18 to 27 metres, according to witnesses.