The reactions of a 12m-long humpback whale and its gesture of “a little thank you” to a group of Spanish divers who saved it from a drift net was “just incredible”, said one of the group.
The whale had been spotted by a ship three miles off the eastern coast of Mallorca in the Balearic islands, where the sighting of such whales is rare, having been reported only twice before.
Thirty-two-year-old marine biologist Gigi Torras, who was a part of the rescue group, said the whale’s gesture stood out as the “best ever” birthday present for her.
“It was like out of this world, it was incredible, just incredible,” she told news agency Reuters on Tuesday.
The successful rescue took place on 20 May.
Officials said they had spotted the frail whale trapped completely inside a red net, to the extent that the mammal could not even open its mouth.
On learning about the trapped whale, staff from Palma de Mallorca’s Aquarium swung into action.
In the initial rescue effort, members of the marine wing tried to cut the net from a boat, but they soon realised they would have to get up closer to the whale to have any impact.
Divers from Albatros and Skualo diving centres were roped in on 20 May.
The crew then dove alongside the whale to cut off the mesh with knives, concluding the rescue operation in 45 minutes.
Ms Torras, who owns the Albatros diving centre, recounted how the crew members saw the humpback whale calm down after an initial stage of nervousness.
“The first 10 seconds she got a bit nervous, you know, like bubbles everywhere, but then I don’t know, call me crazy but I think she knew we were there to help her and she just relaxed and we started working from the front of her mouth backwards,” she said.
She added that the team continued “cutting and cutting” after which the mammal gave a little wiggle to free herself out of the net.
The whale, she said, then stayed for a bit to regain her strength as four divers gave her company.
But before swimming off after the escape, the mammal appeared to give what looked like “a little thank you sign”.
The UN had banned drift nets 30 years ago for presenting a grave threat to aquatic life.
Practically invisible to sea life, drift nets float from a cork line and reach down to a depth of 50ft to catch fish – but they can also kill a range of marine life, including bigger underwater mammals like whales, seals and dolphins, as well as sea birds.