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A man who saved whales from humanity

The history of the Canadian Joe Howlett – he died in an attempt to protect marine creatures that have long been threatened with extinction.

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Joe Howlett after rescuing the whale. Photo of the New England Aquarium

July 10, 2017 in the coastal Canadian township Shipigan killed activist Joe Howlett (Joe Howlett), who devoted many years of life to the rescue of whales. He was trying to help another animal, stuck in the nets, but eventually got a death blow from it. According to the friends of the man, he believed that he had to protect the sea giants – something like a payment for hundreds of years, when mankind exterminated whales.

By the coming anniversary of Howlett’s death, the Canadian edition of The Deep spoke in detail about his activities and the dangerous situation of whales in the world today.

The “debtor” of the ocean

On the day when the 59-year-old Joe Hawlett went with the team of the Canadian Whale Research Center to help the northern smooth whale, the weather was sunny and calm. A day earlier the ship’s crew received a signal from the Canadian Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans with a request to help save the animal: the whale got entangled in fishing nets and could not move. Approximately 80% of the 450 northern smooth whales living in the Atlantic Ocean, at least once fall into this position, a reminder of which remain bright and deep scars.

For Howlett, the request of the authorities was not unusual – he had been saving whales since 2002 and became a kind of celebrity in his craft. Few could compare with him in the experience of freeing giant marine creatures from the fetters, and he could not help noticing the sad trend in his work. The year 2017 was unprecedented for animals that are endangered.

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Kit, entangled in fishing gear. Photo of the team of lifeguards whales of the island Campobello

Fishermen and explorers found more and more dead whales in the St. Lawrence Bay: animals died either from collision with ships or from fishing nets. Getting in them, they often could not move, only vainly trying to break free, cutting ropes deep into the skin. Without waiting for help, the animals died of hunger.

When Howlett’s team reached the whale, he waited expectantly to break out of the fetters and resist. This lasted about four hours, after which the animal suddenly calmed down and seemed to soften in the water. This enabled the rescuer to cut the rope from the whale in just 15 minutes, although this process usually takes several hours.

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Joe Howlett in his teens. Photo from the rescuer’s family archive

As the activist’s friends recall, he considered himself an eternal debtor to the ocean and sought to help its inhabitants. Not only because of some philosophical reasons, but also just for the fun of being near the whales. In the first sea voyage Howlett went as a child, and at 17 years with a friend got a job as an assistant to a research vessel. They visited the islands of Sable, Newfoundland and Baffin, and then went to Greenland.

In his first large-scale journey, Howlett saw giant blocks of ice in the Labrador Sea, polar bears walking along the coast, and spent about a week in Greenland and Baffin Island, dealing with the local population.

After returning from the journey, Howlett dropped out of school and got a job at the Coast Guard. In 1987, when Joe turned 29 years old, he married the native of the small island of Campobello Darlene Brown (Darlene Brown). His wife already had a son from another marriage, and soon they had a common child.

Campobello became the first place where Howlett met whales: at night he was fishing near the shore in a boat when he saw several individuals in the distance. “Jo, are not you afraid?” – asked traveler’s sister Mary Ellen Lonergan (Mary Ellen Lonergan), meaning that whales could turn Howlett’s boat. “Mel, they know that I’m here,” said the man.

The collision of man and the whale

The extinction of whales due to human actions is a topic that goes back far into history. Since people learned to build boats and ships, to survive in the seas and oceans, they hunted whales. Whaling was a dangerous but profitable occupation – the fat extracted from the fat of these marine mammals served as valuable fuel, meat was a tasty food, and hormones, including insulin, could be extracted from the internal organs.

In the 1930s, about 50,000 whales were killed each year, and in the postwar period, their fat was used everywhere, ranging from margarine to ice cream and ending with soap. According to a 2015 study, during the entire 20th century, a man caused the death of about three million whales – more than a serious blow to the number of marine creatures. Only in 1986 the International Commission for the Whale Fishing banned hunting for them: since then only a few countries, including Japan, Norway and Iceland, are engaged in this craft.

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Illustration of a whale attack on a ship, 1560 year. Until the 18-19 centuries, many artists portrayed whales as aggressive and toothy creatures

According to experts, at the present time the number of some species has stabilized, and by 2050 the number of humpbacked and Antarctic small whales will exceed the population before the beginning of large-scale whaling. However, whales still remain under threat of extinction: the main danger to them is the collision with the ship and fishing nets. The first reason for death is easy to explain, the second point is somewhat more complicated.

Sea giants can drag along for years fishing or crab nets, which slowly but surely crash into the skin, provoking blood infection. Whales are very sensitive mammals, so getting into the net can cause them a lot of stress up to difficulties with childbirth. The method of saving animals was invented relatively recently – in the late 1980s.

It looks like this: the activists team goes to the water on an inflatable boat with a long hook similar to a harpoon. With its help, experts cling to fishing gear and gradually cut them. This is a rather dangerous process, since the boat is always near the whale, which can easily turn it over. In particularly difficult situations, specialists turn to divers for help, who dive under water and cut the fetters.

Demonstration of the salvation of the whale shark. Similarly, divers work with whales

“Without a doubt, he was one of the best,” recalls Howlett’s friend and fisherman David Anthony (David Anthony). According to friends, the Canadian always had an inner flair, where and how they need to swim to help the whale. In 2002, the Canadian Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans issued the Howletta team a working vessel, initiating an adventure of 15 years.

In 2003, the Canadian Whale Institute managed to persuade the Canadian Transport Ministry and the International Maritime Organization to change the route of the navigable waterways in the Bay of Fundy (the coast of the USA and Canada) and not far from Nova Scotia. This led to a reduction in the risk of collisions between ships and whales by 90% and to an increase in the number of southern whales to 483 individuals by 2010. This species of the family of smooth whales has become a kind of symbol of the fact that mankind is capable not only of destroying, but also of restoring nature.

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Joe Howlett releases the whale from fishing tackle, 2016. Photo of the Canadian Whale Institute

However, due to climatic changes in the same years, whales began to gradually change their habitual habitat in search of food, again at the risk of encountering ships. At the end of June 2017, the situation became critical – seven whales were killed in the Maine Bay within a month, but no one could understand the reason: a primary analysis of the scientists failed, so the authorities agreed to conduct an autopsy. It involved 30 people – first the dead animals were taken out of the water, and then cut the skin to examine internal organs. Some of the bodies were wounded with fishing gear, which went deep into the flesh and almost reached the bones.

Of the 12 whales whose bodies were examined in 2017, two died, entangled in fishing nets, four died from collision with ships, and the corpses of the others decayed, depriving scientists of the opportunity to determine the cause of death. Two southern individuals that year were saved – thanks to Howlett.

The last trip

On July 10, Howlett and his team received a signal about the location of a new whale caught in the network. The next few hours they ply in that area, trying to find the animal, until the plane told them another supposed place 16 kilometers away from them. The crew’s working vessel could not reach the destination quickly, so Howlett and his friend Philip Hamilton urgently moved to a fast ship and went to the rescue.

They arrived at the scene a little later than ten in the morning and found a six-year-old female of the southern whale in a critical situation: fishing tackles densely dug into her body, fins and mouth. Howlett, Hamilton and the captain of the motor boat got to the whale and looked around: the situation was difficult, but solvable. Joe successfully cut the first two tight ropes when the whale stirred. Rescuers did not see anything unusual in this, so Howlett continued to work and soon the female was free.

Cutting the last rope, the man turned to his partners, smiled and raised his thumb. At that moment, the whale jumped out of the water, lifting a giant tail over the boat: Hamilton just caught a glimpse of the tail land on the spot where his friend was standing.

After the attack, Howlett slowly sank and did not move: within an hour and a half, while the Coast Guard organized the evacuation, the traveler was given artificial heart massage. After the meeting with the rescuers, another 90 minutes passed before the activist was taken to the hospital in Shipigan. There doctors announced that Joe had died.

Roller telling about a new project for the use of drones for the rescue of whales. In the middle of the video (from 1:36) you can see Joe Howlett at work

According to data for 2017, there are only about 100 female southern whales in the world, and up to five individuals die each year. This means that to stabilize the population, 4-5 newborns should appear every year. At the time of writing, there is no data on the birth of new southern species in 2018. The ban on the release of sea giants from fishing gear, imposed due to the investigation of the details of Howlett’s death, was only lifted in March 2018.

The Transport Ministry of Canada has assured that it will double the monitoring of the sea territories and establish new restrictions on the speed of large vessels. In addition, in April 2018, the Coast Guard attempted to split as much ice as possible so that anglers could stretch the net before the whales appeared, but the weather turned cold and efforts were in vain.

The funeral of Howlett in Campobello was attended by about 400 people – among them were local as well as representatives of the scientific and natural community of Canada. According to the audience, these were one of the most ambitious farewell ceremonies in the history of the island. As the friend of the deceased Mackie Greene (Mackie Greene) states, this is not surprising, since in Campobello Houletta was considered a native.

Some people lived here for 20 or 30 years, but they are still not islanders. But Joe was like that. He could go into any house. Without knocking or something else: just go into the house, open the refrigerator and get a beer. If there was something to eat on the counter, then he could have a snack. He just fit in. Was one of us.

Mackie Green
Canadian resident Campobello

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