The hidden costs of rescue
Having spent more than 24 hours snared in a subsea cable, this humpback was finally set free – but saving his life came at a price.
It was so frustrating. For five hours we tried everything, but it was just too dark to see.
I t was a cold, snowy January night when Audun and a friend found themselves racing out to sea off Tromsø, a tiny island in Norway's northern fjordlands, to assist a humpback that had become severely entangled in what they assumed was fishing rope. “He was struggling to stay afloat and clearly distressed, but after a while seemed to understand that we were there to help,” Audun recalls. “He approached, so close that I touched him several times.”
Audun took photos to locate the position of the rope, then the duo tried to free the whale using a pole-mounted knife. They had no idea that what they were trying to sever was in fact a metalcoated internet cable. The coastguard arrived; still the animal remained trapped. “It was incredibly frustrating,” Audun says. “For five hours we tried everything we could think of, but it was just too dark to see. We had no choice but to call the rescue off until daylight.”
Rays of hope
The humpback battled through the night and into the morning, when a fire-and-rescue diver ruptured the wiring enough to break it. The prisoner swam free, his body marked and with likely injuries to his baleen. Audun captured the night’s events in this splitlevel image: the scared whale beneath the surface, his rescuers above. “We don’t know how he became so badly entangled,” he says. “The cable should have been flat on the seabed – perhaps a loop was sticking up and got caught in his mouth as he dived for herring.”
The event left three villages with no internet or mobile connection for several weeks. When the area came back online, both Audun and the Fire and Rescue department received an email from the telecoms company that owned the cable. It was a demand for £150,000 to cover the cost of repairs.
AUDUN RIKARDSEN is a professor in the Department of Arctic and Marine Biology at the University of Tromsø, and has been a professional wildlife photographer for the past eight years: www. audun rikardsen.com