Joe Howlett had just tapped into his extensive knowledge of knots to free yet another whale off the coast of New Brunswick on Monday, part of his job with Canada's Campobello Whale Rescue Team, and then: "Some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip," says Mackie Green, who co-founded the rescue group with Howlett, per the Canadian Press. The Guardian reports that Howlett, a lobster fisherman who died as a result of the incident, had rescued another North Atlantic right whale just days before, bringing his total over the past 15 years or so to about 24. The region has been dealing with an alarming influx of whale deaths, with seven North Atlantic right whale carcasses being found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the past month alone—what some estimate to be about 1% of the total worldwide population.
An expert from the Canadian Whale Institute tells the Canadian Press and the CBC that the 59-year-old Howlett likely wouldn't have been immersed in the water himself, as rescuers typically do their release work from inflatable rubber boats. He adds that the giant mammals can't move that much while they're tangled up in ropes, but that once a whale is freed, the rescue boat usually backs off to avoid the wrath of a possibly irate animal. Canada's fisheries department notes in a statement that it takes "immense bravery" to deal with trapped whales. And Green says his group will continue to do just that, because that's what Howlett would've wanted. "There's no better feeling than getting a whale untangled," Green says, describing Howlett to the Canadian Press as "the life of the party." (In Alaska, orcas are making off with fishermen's catch.)