Navy in a whale of a rescue


It was Avurudu day, April 14. Whilst their fellow Sinhala and Tamil countrymen refrained from work during the Nonagathaya, Navy sailors and officers in the Inshore Patrolling Craft (IPS) had to conduct their routine check within the Trincomalee Harbor area.

It was around 10.30 am when a sailor spotted something like a submarine moving towards the harbor. He alerted the rest of the team and all eyes were on the moving object through binoculars, while the craft was maneuvered towards it. Suddenly a sprout of water shot up from the surface. “It is a whale” cried a sailor recognizing the unmistakable trail a whale leaves when they breathe. 

“There is a whale approaching the inner harbor”, the message was quickly radioed to the operations room at the Naval Base. The whale was about 10m long and identified as a Blue Whale by naval officers who were experts on these marine mammals. The blue whale is the largest mammal in the world that can grow up to 33 meters. Hence, it is believed that the whale stranded in the harbor was a young one. Though young, it would still weigh several tons and if grounded, it could be difficult to pull it back. The whale was fast approaching the shallows of the inner harbor.

Commander- Eastern Naval Area, Rear Admiral Jayanath Colombage too was alerted, and he had ordered that necessary measures be taken to guide the giant mammal towards the deep sea. The sailors navigated their craft trying to block the whales’ path, but the whale appeared to be lost and seemed reluctant to turn back, continuing on its suicidal mission. Recognising that time was running out, more boats were deployed in an attempt to block the approaching whale. But the whale dived to avoid the naval blockade and continued moving towards shallow waters in a cat and mouse game.
This wasn’t the first time that Trinco Harbor had whales inside it. In April 2009 and 2010, there was a pair of Blue Whales within the harbor. But that time it wasn’t this hard to chase the stranded pair back to deeper waters, before they entered the shallow end of the harbor.

The attempts at dissuading the whale seemed to be in vain, when ultimately it reached a shallow corner of Trinco harbor. The whale was now only partly submerged with part of its body above the surface. These oversized mammals when stranded in shallow waters, can crush their internal organs like their lungs, by their own weight, resulting in their death. So time was running out for the whale with its survival dependant on the actions of the navy team. It was now around 2.30 pm, and while others were busy participating in Avurudu rituals, this group of sailors continued their struggle with the whale.

“Can’t we tow it back to deeper waters..?” an officer suggested. There wasn’t much time left to think, so the decision was taken to attempt the mammoth task. Last year, a naval team also towed an elephant stranded in the sea, but this blue whale is several times bigger than the giant of the land.

Five navy divers were immediately assigned for the rescue mission to try and tie a rope around the giant. A group of them managed to put a rope around the whale’s tail section. They then tried to drag it to deeper waters, but the whale was too heavy. The rope broke for the weight. More time lapsed for the Navy divers to tie another rope. This time a trawler was used. but the giant started pulling it. Even though exhausted, the panicked whale had enough strength to even to pull this large boat. In the attempt to pull the giant, the second rope too broke.

This time a stronger python rope used to pull ships was used. A diver climbed on top of the slippery giant while others got the rope around the whale’s belly underwater. They were careful not to injure the whale that was now exhausted with the struggle, and secured the rope across its fins. Realizing that the whale was too heavy for a single boat, this time two boats were deployed to pull the giant. There was no movement initially, but slowly the power of the two boats gradually overcame the giant mammal’s weight. The engines raised to their maximum started heading toward deeper waters.

Fortunately, the exhausted whale didn’t struggle this time, but the boats had to pull it quickly, as otherwise the whale could die by suffocation, if it panicked and could not breathe. So the naval team had to act quickly. After pulling the giant for about 15 min, they reached deeper waters outside the harbor. The rescue mission had taken about five hours and the whale was exhausted. But it had a companion waiting in deeper waters looking for its colleague. Naval officers believe this is the mate of the stranded whale that used to enter the harbor last years too in April.
After the reunion, the whale regained its energy, and with a swift dive, as if to thank its rescuers, the whale dived with its mate and disappeared. Though the Navy officers at the Trinco base missed their Avurudu, they were thrilled to have saved a life. What better way to celebrate New Year sharing their kindness..!!

Why Whales strand..? 

What makes a whale beach itself? Most Marine mammals known as cetaceans use their own form of sonar and are sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field – they use both of these to navigate and find their food. Several things can affect these otherwise amazing skills. 

Navigation error – whales and dolphins sometimes get lost as they use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate the seas. There are a number of things (that we don’t yet fully understand) that may cause the animals to become confused, causing them to misread these magnetic lines and become lost. 
Noise pollution – anthropogenic (human-made) noise from drilling, dredging, shipping, offshore developments and seismic surveys can cause disorientation and distress. 
Naval sonar – the effects of sound waves from submarines used by the military (for detecting other submarines, ships etc) can disorientate whales and dolphins 

Some species of cetaceans are very social animals and travel in family groups following a dominant leader. Tragically, if the group leader is sick and swims into shallow water, all the others may follow and become stranded together.
Source: The Natural History Meuseum – London 

Published on SundayTimes web on 24.04.2011

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