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Recasting the Debate

A dramatic rescue in the Sea of Cortez illustrates the dangers that indiscriminate fishing devices such as drift gill-nets can pose for whales and other marine species.

August 08, 2003|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Mark Ward won't soon forget the look of distress so apparent in the eyes of the floundering whale -- large, hopeful eyes that met his after he'd dived in and attempted to cut away a large net in which the cow and her calf had become perilously entangled.

Nor will the retired fishing and diving guide be able to shake from his memory the thrashing he received from the 35-foot leviathan in a moment of panic -- a thrashing that caused him to likewise become entangled, and to be held under for so long that he took his knife and tried to saw his leg off in a desperate attempt to reach the surface.

These are lasting images and impressions.

But two weeks after the chaotic rescue attempt atop the choppy Sea of Cortez, 30 miles beyond San Carlos, Mexico, off the Sonora coast, Ward says it is the long, eerie, almost otherworldly cries of the stricken sperm whale that really have a grip on his mind.

"I haven't had any nightmares yet, but I have woke up to that song," the Tucson resident said this week from his part-time home in San Carlos. "I could hear her singing, like, her death song. She was crying for help.

"Never till two nights later, after a stiff drink, did I realize that she was probably not crying for her help or my help. She was crying for her baby."

Ward, 51, had been listening to the VHF radio while doing yardwork on the afternoon of July 24 when a static-filled plea for help came across the airwaves.

Dick Replogle, on a sport fishing trip with his sons, Bryan and Court, made the call. They had found the whale and her calf "wrapped like a cigar three times" in a monofilament net presumably abandoned by its owners when they saw what their haul was. The calf, pressed tightly against her mother, had already perished and its carcass had begun to deteriorate.

Replogle, 60, also from the Tucson area, had tied his vessel to the netting and his sons had jumped in to try to cut away as much of it as possible.

They had freed the pectoral fins and tail, and had also managed to separate the calf. But without masks or other diving equipment, that was as much as they could do.

Ward and his girlfriend caught a ride aboard a fast boat and arrived just before dusk, and he volunteered to jump in with a mask and snorkel -- "I didn't use a tank because the bubbles might have frightened her," he said -- and see whether he could remove the netting still attached to the animal's midsection and jaw.

What happened next was a scene evocative of Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," which pitted Capt. Ahab against the great white whale that had once maimed him.

The net was a drift gill-net, a controversial type of fishing gear that resembles nets used on volleyball or tennis courts, only much wider and with much larger mesh. They have weights to keep the lower portions down and floats to keep them upright.

They can measure up to three miles and, because of their indiscriminate and destructive nature -- they're commonly referred to as "curtains of death" -- their use has diminished in many parts of the world. Mexico is allowing them inside its 50-mile sportfishing-only zone as part of what it calls a limited shark fishery.

Five long strands of the net had worked their way "just like dental floss" between the teeth and gums on the sperm whale's lower jaw, and around the jaw itself, Ward said. Dangling beneath the jaw was at least one of the weights attached to the net.

"Looking into that mouth was absolutely like being in a monster movie," Ward recalled. "But I knew I had to tough it out."

Remarkably, the whale seemed to sense that an effort was being made on its behalf. She allowed Ward to probe her mouth and with each long breath he carefully cut at the strands of netting. He had removed three strands before accidentally nicking the whale's tongue with his knife.

That brought about an entirely different type of behavior.

"She was trying to kill me," Ward said. Perhaps out of instinct, the whale became full of fight. As Ward described it, she slapped her pectoral fins hard against her body, creating a current that left Ward swirling beneath her jaw. She then pushed the diver down with her head and spun her massive body.

As she spun, the netting twisted around Ward's ankle and lower calf. Desperately in need of air, he began to saw at the netting. But when that wouldn't give he realized that amputation might be his only salvation.

"It was either the net or the leg," he said. "I was absolutely sawing my whole leg off about 15 inches above the ankle."

Fortunately, not long after he'd begun to cut, the netting unraveled "like a twisted-up rubber band" and the diver, along with the whale, reappeared at the surface.

"As I told my old lady, my ankle went around like the chick's neck on 'The Exorcist,' " Ward said.

His girlfriend cared for his wound until the boat made landfall, upon which he received 12 stitches for a cut that extended to the bone.

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