The search continues for at least four entangled humpback whales off Vancouver Island’s central coast.

Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) co-founder, Jackie Hildering, says two are identified by nicknames – Checkmate and X-Ray.

Checkmate was seen as entangled two weeks ago, thanks to the keen eye of a whale watcher near Campbell River.

When DFO officials were searching for Checkmate, they came across X-Ray, which was also tangled in fishing gear.

Hildering added that they know of at least two more whales that are entangled in the same general waters.

She warns that there may be even more whales entangled in the Salish Sea.

“This is just the detected entanglements,” Hildering said. 

“Our coast is so vast, it’s really important to understand that, that there are very likely more entangled humpbacks as a result of there being more humpbacks, fortunately, near our coast, and that’s both population growth since we no longer kill them, and also because they shifted from somewhere else. And as a result, we have an overlap between two species trying to fish: the humpbacks and the recreational and commercial fishers.”

Hildering said there is much to learn from the recent events. The biggest lesson is to leave freeing entangled whales to the experts.

She said someone made a terrible mistake in trying to free Checkmate, by removing rope at the surface. 

According to MERS, gear at the surface would have allowed ease of recognizing this whale as entangled and would have allowed a far better possibility of being able to remove the entangling gear below the surface. 

“Along the lines of what is put forward in many romantic viral videos of the people with the best of intentions, and putting themselves at extreme risk, removed the line from the surface,” Hildering explained. 

“If the line is removed from the surface of an entangled whale, not only is there an extreme risk to those who are well-intentioned but also it’s doing the opposite of what people would want. Most often, the whale is still entangled below the surface but now it can’t be seen that there is entanglement.”

She said the biggest problem on the coast is finding a whale’s back.

There are more and more people being trained, she added, to attach a tag to the net or lines that the whale is dragging behind it, that sends out a signal so that the whale can be found and then officials can get the appropriate equipment and expertise to the whale to properly disentangle it.

Most often, the whales are not at immediate risk. According to Hildering, the real danger lies in not being able to locate them over long periods.

“It is the long-term impact of infection from the entanglement and not being able to feed properly and/or move properly that is of concern,” Hildering said. “And then the third thing is, whatever the whale is dragging at the surface, also allows the disentanglers to then make contact with the whale by attaching points, to slow down the whale and then to be able either with a drone or with a stick camera to analyze the entanglement, and figure out how best to proceed.”

Of the four whales, Checkmate’s situation is the “most dire,” Hildering said.

She wants everyone to know just how big a threat fishing gear is to humpbacks. 

“We will never know how many die because dead whales usually sink to the bottom of the ocean. Even those that do wash ashore, our coastline is so vast, you may never find them, or they might be in such a state of decay, that you can’t figure out who the whale is, or how they died,” Hildering said.

Hildering is asking you to stay vigilant and if you do see a whale in trouble, know to call DFO’s observe-record-report line at 1-800-465-4336, so there can be a coordinated response.

She added that the best thing you can do is report it as quickly as possible, take photos, and explain the location, and stay with the whale if possible at a safe distance.