South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN)
Support Group


Was launched in February 2006 and is a voluntary and independent organisation. DAPG is a founder member of the Network together with a number of other governmental and non-governmental organisations.

More whales are visiting and migrating past South Africa's 3000 km coastline annually and it follows that with the increase in their population there are going to be more and more entanglements in fishing gear such as rock lobster buoys and ropes and the shark nets on the east coast. The two species of whales mainly affected are southern rights and humpbacks.

Disentangling whales is highly dangerous and it was of concern in past years when laymen went out to entangled whales, jumped into the water with them, climbed on their tails etc to try and dislodge ropes and netting without any proper training or specialised equipment. In the USA, for example, getting into the water to try and disentangle whales is not allowed, except in extreme situations and this is the policy in South Africa as well. Disentanglements can only be executed by experienced teams of volunteers, properly trained and permitted by the Department of Environment, using equipment specifically designed for disentanglement.


In relation to the trained volunteer teams the South African Whale Disentanglement Network called for volunteers from their affiliated bases around the coast as well as from other governmental and non-governmental organisations and all have to carry high-risk insurance. The Network works through an Executive Council.
Mike Meyer
a marine scientist recently retired from the Department of Environment and has been Director of Operations and Training since the Network had its inception.
DAPG, together with other member organisations, has since then over the past years contributed large amounts of money for equipment, safety gear and use of vessels, fuel etc. DAPG continues to do administration work for the Network when needed.

At present participants include members from:

  • The Department of Environment Affairs (DEA)
  • The Department of Environment, Forestry & Fisheries (DEFF)
  • South African National Parks (SANPARKS); Cape Nature Conservation
  • SA Police Sea Borderline Control (Waterwing); SA Police Divers
  • Mammal Research Institute
  • The Boat-based whale watching and shark cage diving fraternity in various areas
  • National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) from stations around the coast

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board is also a member of SAWDN, but their disentanglements, ie in the shark gillnets, require different techniques & training to those used to disentangle fishing gear.



ENTANGLEMENT: It appears that calves and sub-adult whales are more likely to become entangled. Curiosity and lack of experience are possible factors that are the cause of this. Around the South African coastline humpback and southern right whales are the species that more often than not become entangled.

DISENTANGLEMENT: Disentangling large whales is a highly dangerous operation. SAWDN volunteers all carry high risk insurance and are trained. This is no job for laymen. So far teams have had numbers of successes in disentangling animals. Depending on weather, state of the sea and distance from shore it is not always possible, without risking lives to reach entangled whales, and if they are still swimming strongly they disappear. Sometimes ropes, traps etc., anchor the whale to the seabed. In such a case it makes the job of disentanglement a little easier. From scarring photographed on some of the whales seen around South Africa’s coastline, it is obvious that some animals have shed whatever had entangled them.


NSRI Station 10 SAWDN team disentangling whale in False Bay
Photo: Brenton Geach

Disentanglement of a whale is by no means the end of their problems. According to Dr Bob Bowman - an American expert on whale disentanglement, - disentanglement is only the first step in the recovery of an entangled whale. Entangled whales sustain significant bruising and even sometimes life threatening internal injuries that are imperceptible without a necropsy. It is very difficult to determine the extent and effect of injuries on entangled whales and they are frequently surprised about which whales survive entanglement trauma and which ones do not.

A humpback whale that became entangled in fishing nets was freed by members of the South African Whale Disentaglement Network (SAWDN) of Cape Point
on 21 June 2011. Rescuers are seen here trying to cut the ropes of the whale.
Picture by Chad Chapman

TRAINING: Mike Meyer, Director of Operations and Training together with colleagues, regularly trains new volunteers as well as running refresher courses in various key areas around the coast. All these areas (20 at present) now have trained volunteers ready to go out to entangled whales at a momentís notice. It has taken a great deal of time and effort to get this far. The Network is also fortunate to have the use of National Sea Rescue Instituteís (NSRI) boats and volunteers when needed.
Human safety comes first. This is a condition laid down in SAWDN’s Protocol.

SAWDN continues to go well and its efficient operation has been praised by overseas countries that have similar disentanglement Networks.

Training Session: Volunteers at Simon's Town Harbour

SAWDN team from OCEANS & COASTS, Department Environment disentangling whales.
Photos: Oceans & Coasts

The SAWDN acts as the official representative for whale disentanglement in South Africa and abides by the protocols and procedures recommended by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Workshop on Whale Entanglement.

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