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September 2003 Vol. 18, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Whale Rider

from the September, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When the mayday call came about a stricken humpback whale caught in lines off New Zealand's Kaikoura coast in mid-June, Tom Smith strapped on his tank and raced into action. On two earlier occasions, the 38-year-old fisherman had responded to a roped whale, and both times he had managed to free them. He said that saving a humpback whale was "a real once-in-a-lifetime encounter" after he freed one from craypot lines in Kaikoura in June 2001.

He said he donned scuba gear and made eye contact to let the whale know he was there. "As I swam up I could see it drop its head and thought it was going to dive, but what it did was to lift its tail and lay dead still while I cut off the float and the last of the rope." After the whale was freed, it came up right beside the boat, where it stayed for a few moments, before lifting its tail and slowly swimming away.

This time, 30 tourists on a whale watching adventure watched a tragedy unfold.

Smith was on board his vessel, The Bounty, with his wife, father-in-law, and a friend when fishermen alerted him to the trapped whale, about 30 feet long. The tourists were watching the whale when Smith arrived and leaped into the water. He was trying to cut the line attached to a crayfish pot when the whale lifted its tail, smashing it down on its rescuer underneath. Smith and the bubbles from his tank disappeared.

The New Zealand Herald reported that the Coast Guard and locals searched the area, giving up after four hours when they knew there was no hope of finding him alive. The whale apparently broke free of the nylon rope and survived.

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