After a fruitless day of marlin fishing off the central Mexican coast on Feb. 25, Oregon native Jeremy Lusch was motoring his panga boat toward home when he spotted something large frolicking in the rough Pacific swells.
Lusch headed toward it, thinking his Canadian fishing clients would enjoy seeing a large sea turtle in the wild 10 miles from shore. But as they closed in, they could tell this was no giant turtle.
That's when they heard the first whale cry.
"It was struggling and making all sorts of noises," says Lusch, 37. "It was like an animal crying."
The adult humpback whale was entangled head to tail in a gillnet loaded with hundreds of pounds of dead fish that threatened to pull it under, and its only hope of avoiding drowning came from three men with no scuba gear and a couple of small filet knives.
"It was definitely a little sketchy, a little crazy," Lusch says. "It was like, what are we going to do?"
Large humpbacks with their barnacled sides and long fins are common sights for Lusch, a Eugene native and brother of Mail Tribune photographer Jamie Lusch who moved to Mexico 13 years ago. He owns and operates Discover Manzanillo, a do-it-all tourism business run out of the major port city of Manzanillo on Mexico's central Pacific coast.
Like North American tourists, humpbacks find their way south in the winter, part of an annual 3,000-mile trek that makes them the most nomadic mammals on the planet. Highly intelligent, they are known to play and breed in these waters, with males often singing a song that can last for 20 minutes and be heard two miles away.
In addition to humpbacks, Lusch regularly runs across illegal floating gillnets. The nylon nets dangle from the surface to entangle the gills of fish that swim into the mesh.
As the whale cried for help, Lusch radioed the Mexican Navy, which had to scramble to get asea and push through 10 miles of rough water to reach them. He also radioed his company's dive team to join up with the Navy.
As he surveyed the situation, Lusch realized that jumping in and trying to cut the whale free looked hopeless and dangerous. For close to 30 minutes, they watched the whale surface to catch a breath, then sink beneath the hundreds of pounds of creveles, snook, huachinangos and other fish captured in the net.
When they realized the whale was having a hard time breathing, Lusch and deckhand Miguel Luna proposed what appeared to be their only way to save the whale.
Each grabbed a small, sharp filet knife and jumped in, the salty water stinging their eyes as they swam to the humpback.
Lusch slipped his hand under the net and began cutting away.
"Luckily the knives were sharp, so it cut like butter," Lusch says. "But there was so much net you could only cut about 2 feet at a time between breaths."
The whale would surface, and the men would start cutting until the humpback would sink and the men would run out of breath. Sometimes it surfaced right beneath them.
"There were lots of times it would come up and we would literally be standing on top of the whale," Lusch says.
The whale felt remarkable, Lusch says.
"Its sides were all smelly and barnacly, and all this stuff was growing on it like it was its own ecosystem," he says. "But beneath it, it felt like a pillow."
And it appeared to sense it was being helped.
As they cut on the net, the whale often kept silent. When they let go, it would start to cry.
Lusch, Luna and Canadian tourist Murray Dean traded 15-minute dive shifts cutting net, one on the tail and one on the face to ensure the writhing whale and sordid currents wouldn't cause them to accidentally stab each other.
After 90 minutes, the Mexican Navy and Discover Manzanillo's dive crew arrived. By then, the trio had the head and tail free, so a half-dozen divers quickly unwrapped the remaining net from the whale's torso while shooting underwater video of the rescue's final moments.
The crying stopped.
"It rolled in the water twice, like it was testing to see if it really was free," Lusch says. "Then he came up to about 10 feet from the boat, put its head out of the water and gave a nod. Then he disappeared."