South African Whale Disentanglement Network (SAWDN)
Support Group


was founded in September 2005 by Marine & Coastal Management (now Oceans & Coasts (O&C)) and the Dolphin Action & Protection Group (DAPG).

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 possibly 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 backs 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 approved by the Department of Environment, using equipment specifically designed for disentanglement.


In relation to volunteer teams the
Department of Environment called for volunteers from their bases around the coast as well as from other governmental and non-governmental organisations.
  • At present, apart from officers of Oceans & Coasts (O&C), volunteers from
  • The Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries (DAFF);
  • Table Mountain Parks Board; SA National Parks; Cape Nature Conservation;
  • SA Police Sea Borderline Control (Waterwing); SA Police Divers;
  • Mammal Research Institute;
  • The Boat-based whale watching fraternity in various areas; and
  • National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) from stations around the coast.
  • The Sharks Board KZN is also a member of the Network, but their disentanglements, ie in the shark gillnets, require different techniques & training to those used to disentangle fishing gear.

DAPG is a founder member of SAWDN, which is run under the auspices of the Department of Environment - Oceans & Coasts. The Network works through an executive committee. A member of the rock lobster industry also serves on the executive committee. Mike Meyer, a marine scientist (Oceans & Coasts) is the Director of Operations & Training. Donations are channelled through the Dolphin Action & Protection Group and have been since 2006. DAPG together with other organisations has contributed large amounts of funding for equipment etc.. DAPG continues to do a fair amount of administrative work for the Network as well.



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 (Oceans & Coasts) is Director of Operations and training and with colleagues regularly trains new volunteers as well as running refresher courses in various key areas around the coast. All these areas now have trained volunteers ready to go out to entangled whales at a moment’s notice. It has taken a great deal of time and effort to get this far and the Oceans & Coasts team doing this need to be commended, as training is done in their spare time. SAWDN is also fortunate to have the use of National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) boats and volunteers when needed and they are warmly thanked. Volunteers are not allowed to disentangle whales in rough weather.
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

WARNING: Under Section 3(1) of the Marine Living Resources Act (1998), NO-ONE unless trained and appointed by the Department may render assistance to trapped or entangled whales. These amendments to the Act were gazetted in July 2008.
Further, it is mandatory that all volunteers carry high risk insurance.


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

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