Sea World's director of marine sciences, Trevor Long.
Sea World's director of marine sciences, Trevor Long. Contributed

Humpback recovery for ocean hero

INTERVIEWS are nothing new for Trevor Long.

Sea World's director of marine sciences is called up weekly, and sometimes daily, to speak to the media on everything from the theme park's latest marine imports to South-East Queensland's controversial sharks nets to risky wildlife rescues.

But there is one marine mammal that holds a special place in the scientist's heart – the whale.

Tomorrow, on World Environment Day, Long's four decades of work in whale conservation will be honoured in Network Ten's documentary, Call of the Whale.

His most memorable whale rescue as part of a Sea World team took place on Coolum Beach in 1992.

Nearly two decades on, he breaks out of interview mode and into a genuinely excited recollection of that dramatic day.

“That was the first time in the world a large whale had ever been dragged up the beach and saved,” he said.

“We're the only people in the world ever to have achieved that. The community involvement was amazing. I've never seen a community bring down things like earth moving equipment and putting their machinery in a salt-water environment wanting to help an animal. These animals bring out an emotion in us that I don't think many species do.”

But Long is no adrenaline junkie. Despite the advances made in rescue techniques and equipment since his first whale rescue off Main Beach on the Gold Coast in 1974, Long still gets a healthy dose of fear when he's grappling with entangled whales.

“I think we were fairly ignorant of the dangers (in 1974) and we probably did some things you wouldn't do now,” he said.

“I've had a couple of very close calls with whales in nets. You've got a big animal and you're in small boats. It's a very dangerous situation. Still today when a phone rings in winter I say to my wife ‘God I hope this is not a whale'. I get quite frightened. I think fear is a good thing. I think fear, like if you go across a busy road you have a bit of fear, is a very healthy thing. You know you will cross the road, but it's the fear of getting injured that makes you do it safely.”

Call of the Whale looks at the work by scientists, researchers, conservationists and fundraisers that has helped Australia's endangered east-coast population of humpback whales recover from the intense whaling of the 1950s and ‘60s.

“We're talking about a species that got down to maybe 50 animals, and we'll see hopefully 14,000 whales come past our coast this year,” he said.

“There's not many species you'll see make a recovery like that.”

Pingers installed on the Gold Coast's shark nets in 2009 have helped reduce the number of entanglements, but Long says other types of tackle and waste still threaten Australia's whales.

Seemingly harmless things like the ropes from crab pots and fish trap buoys can create heart-wrenching scenes for the rescue team.

“I remember one particular whale we rescued over night time. It was caught in a net so we went out there in Sea World One and the whale was covered in sea lice, so much it was brown in colour,” he said.

“We got it out and it slowly swam away, but then we got a phone call the next day that it was up on the beach at Kingscliff. It had a rope around its tail, and it probably had that rope around its tail for six months. The rope had been slowly cutting away and the tail just broke.

“Imagine the sheer pain and agony that animal goes through. I can tell you these animals feel pain.”

But Long sees a bright future for the recovering humpbacks and believes World Environment Day should be a time to celebrate this iconic species and its many supporters.

Call of the Whale airs tomorrow at 3.30pm on Ten.

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