A critically endangered northern right whale that had become entangled in commercial fishing gear off the East Coast is swimming freely, thanks to a recreational angler who dived in with a knife—and video camera—and swam to the rescue.

Capt. Pat Foster and mate Adrian Colaprete of the vessel Wave Runner encountered the whale 50 miles beyond Virginia Beach, Virginia. The mammal was encumbered by a rope or trap line that was dragging heavy fishing gear. (The rescue occurs in the first 1:15 of the accompanying video; the rest is an explanation by Foster and Colaprete of how the event played out.)

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The rope looks to have been inside the whale’s mouth. It can be seen protruding from both sides of the whale at the mouth corners, with the fishing gear far below and not visible. Northern right whales feed largely by skimming with their mouths open, which could explain how it became entangled in this manner.

Normally, in this type of situation, citizens should contact NOAA Fisheries or a group trained in the rescue of large mammals.

Foster and Colaprete, however, decided to act quickly after identifying the entangled mammal as a northern right whale, the rarest of large whales and among the rarest of all marine mammal species. (The whales were once hunted to the brink of extinction; there are currently about 450 in the North Atlantic.)


Adrian Colaprete jumps in with knife to free entangled northern right whale. Above photo shows the whale. Images are video screen grabs.

The entangled whale was swimming slowly so Foster was able to pilot the vessel ahead of the mammal, allowing Colaprete to jump in with his knife and prepare for the encounter.

“I jumped in and started swimming towards it, and I couldn’t see it because I was pretty far in front of it, and then all of a sudden it came out of the gloom, and it was almost like a submarine coming at me,” he said.

He chose to cut the rope when the whale slowed even more as it swam alongside the diver.

“As soon as the whale kind of passed me and I was parallel to its face and to its eye, it kind of stopped … It kind of gave me a little window to get down there.”

As viewers can see at about the 1:05 mark, the sliced rope slides free of the whale, which then reveals its tail fluke to signal a dive. It then disappears and Colaprete is overjoyed.

“Got it!” he exclaims from the water, to Foster on the boat. “Hey I cut the line; it slid right through its tail. It’s gone!”

–Video is courtesy of TheWildLyfe