On the Job: Robert Fitzsimmons of the Campobello whale rescue team

On the Job: Robert Fitzsimmons of the Campobello whale rescue team
Robert Fitzsimmons. Photographer: Scott Fitzgerald

“WELL, MAC AND JOE STARTED THIS BACK IN 2002. I was kind of watching it, what was going on there. One day they went out and disentangled a whale, and I was with my granddaughter, she was just small. She said to me, ‘Grampie, how come you don’t do that?’ And I didn’t have an answer for her,” says Robert Fitzsimmons, a 67-year-old former fisherman. “So I said maybe I best go talk with Mac. So that’s what I did, and that is how I got involved.”

Fitzsimmons is now a 16-year veteran of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team (CWRT), a small, and until this year, volunteer group on Campobello Island, New Brunswick. CWRT is licensed by the Dept. of Fisheries to disentangle whales trapped in fishing lines and weirs in the Maritimes and Gulf of St. Lawrence, and by the U.S. government for response in American waters. Fitzsimmons is talking about Mac Greene and Joe Howlett, the latter of whom was killed in the summer of 2017 when he was struck by a recently freed North Atlantic right whale.

“I started doing some training and getting involved a little bit. You have to go slow at it. It’s not something you can just jump right into and do. You have to learn how to do all this stuff and identify tools, learn how to use the tools, identify whales, other marine mammals, there’s quite a bit to it,” he continues.

When CWRT receives a report of a whale in distress on their hotline, they are normally ready to go within an hour. While they are jumping in their trucks to get to the wharf, getting their float suits on and loading gear aboard the 26’ Zodiac they use for rescues, the hotline operator is trying to get as much information from the reporting vessel as possible—type of whale, latitude and longitude. He asks the boat captain to take pictures but warns him not to get too close and asks him to stand by until CWRT or the Coast Guard arrives. If they lose sight of that whale, the team’s chances of finding it again are slim.

“You get excited, but you have to control it. Because you’ve got to think straight. Make sure you don’t forget things behind, that you don’t do things out of protocol. There’s numerous phone calls that have been made and things set up. So you’re excited, but you hate the fact that the whale is tangled up, to start off with. You feel bad immediately about that. I’ll tell you, and this is the truth, when you cut a whale free, when you reach down, and take that knife and put that in and that line goes pop, and that whale is free, it is the greatest feeling you’d ever have in your life,” says Fitzsimmons.

But when they fail, it’s also the lowest feeling he’s ever had in his life. Like that time Greene and Fitzsimmons spent four days trying to get a 600-pound crab trap off the head of a finback in the Gulf, up on the Saguenay near Tadoussac. The last day, the men made 109 approaches until Greene had worn the knees from his float suit, but Captain Hook, as locals called the finback, wouldn’t let them near him. In the end, Fitzsimmons believes the whale went to sea to die. “It was an awful, awful bad feeling trying to get to that whale and couldn’t,” he says.

Normally, there are three team members on a rescue: one to steer, one to document and one to cut the ropes from the whale. When they arrive on the scene, they pull up alongside the vessel standing by to look at any pictures they might have. “You definitely want to know what kind of a whale you’re dealing with because they all have different behaviors. The northern right whale is probably one of the most difficult whales to disentangle. It’s one of the stronger whales. It can get quite aggressive. Of course, they all can get aggressive. But this guy, he’s just so big and strong. We call him the problem child. But of course, he’s the most endangered whale too so he gets a lot of attention when something happens,” says Fitzsimmons.

In the summer of 2018, CWRT received a call about a baby humpback off Brier Island, N.S. It took the team about an hour and a half to get to Nova Scotia. When they arrived, they found baby and mother side by side. The smaller humpback had two wraps of rope around his back, one through his mouth and a couple around his left flipper. But each time CWRT approached to try and cut the ropes away, the mother would shield the baby from them.

“The baby would be right here and we would pull up alongside, and mama would go underneath the baby and come up between the baby and us. All of the sudden here comes this other whale from way off in the distance and it’s coming, it’s coming fast. And that came right over and I don’t know if it was the daddy or if it was a mate, I don’t know. But the mother would get on one side and the other one on the other side to keep the baby in the middle so we couldn’t get at him,” Fitzsimmons recalls.

After a few hours, the larger whales began to submit to CWRT’s efforts. The second adult whale swam away, and the mother allowed Fitzsimmons to reach over her and lean his cutting pole on her back to reach the baby. “I got the first cut and got one turn of rope off him and then a little while later we used what’s called a cutting grapple. It caught into a big ball of rope on his side. There’s a big balloon on the end of it. Of course, as soon as it caught, we let it go. The whale takes off and when the whale goes down, the resistance from this balloon pulling back, not wanting to go under, started cutting all the ropes. The baby started thrashing and splashing but that’s just what we wanted. And then all of a sudden, he was clear. All cut clear. And we laid still, baby and mama was right there,” he says. “It was breathtaking.”

The rescue of the baby humpback was CWRT’s first after the loss of their crew member and founder Joe Howlett the year before, a loss that made them pause, but not stop. “I’m sure going across the bay when we were steering across, Joe was on everybody’s mind, you know? I’m quite sure of that. Joe was good at what he done and he had a passion for it. Just like us. He loved it. But no, I would never slow down on account of that. Because I know Joe would come back and kick me in the ass if I did it,” says Fitzsimmons. |nrm

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