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Seafarer Joe Howlett risked his life to save whales

Jow Howlett, seen off the coast of Campobello Island in 2015.

IFAW/via AP

Joe Howlett flashed a big, happy grin after cutting the last entangled fishing line, knowing he was successful in freeing another giant North Atlantic right whale.

Over the past 15 years, a combination of bravery and passion for the sea led Mr. Howlett, the co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, to help save dozens of whales entangled in fishing gear mostly in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Being a commercial fisherman, he had a good understanding of the fishing gear and how to remove it from the whales.

"He was so enthusiastic about being able to do this," said Jerry Conway, a retired marine mammal adviser with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and an adviser with the Canadian Whale Institute.

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"To see the whale swim away, free of its gear – the crew would be excited," Mr. Conway said. "Joe took particular pleasure in that."

But on July 10, Mr. Howlett's exuberance over freeing the endangered North Atlantic right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was short-lived. Once it was free, the massive whale, measuring up to 20 metres long and weighing as much as 70 tonnes, suddenly dove into the water. As it did, its tail came down on Mr. Howlett. Still aboard the ship, he died almost immediately from the impact. He was 59.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada had called Mr. Howlett after spotting the North Atlantic right whale entangled in a heavy snarl of rope. With his expertise, they knew he could help. At the time of the call, Mr. Howlett was aboard the Shelagh, a privately owned vessel. Having been hired to captain the boat, he was with researchers from New England who were monitoring and tracking whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

When the call came, Mr. Howlett dropped everything and was soon aboard a Fisheries and Oceans fast-response vessel. They soon found the entangled whale, one of only about 500 remaining, about 20 kilometres off Shippagan, N.B. There were six people aboard the vessel, but he was the only one involved in the disentanglement, according to Mr. Conway, who was not part of the rescue.

During a rescue, Mr. Howlett typically worked with a team of about five people from the Campobello Whale Rescue Team. A group of volunteers consisting mostly of fishermen, the team received training from the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies, in Provincetown, Mass. Each team member had a specific job during a rescue. Mr. Howlett was primarily responsible for cutting ropes around the whale. When the boat went alongside the marine mammal, Mr. Howlett's job was to decide which ropes to cut first and then use a piece of equipment such as a curved knife on a long pole or a grapple with a cutting edge to make the cut.

"I think Joe felt he was taking from the ocean," his wife, Darlene Howlett, said. Rescuing whales "was his way of feeling like he was giving back."

The waters around Campobello, a small New Brunswick island off the Maine coast in the Bay of Fundy, where Mr. Howlett called home, attract many North Atlantic right, fin, humpback, minke and other whales. An important mating and feeding ground for whales, it is also a rich fishing area for lobster, crab, shrimp, herring, haddock, pollock and cod.

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Fishing gear is difficult for the whales to avoid. If they swim into the gear, they can become entangled, often causing serious wounds, or sometimes anchoring them to the sea floor – resulting in drowning.

At a moment's notice, Mr. Howlett and his team of rescuers would risk their lives when they drove their inflatable Zodiac boat filled with equipment next to a giant, scared and entangled whale. But Mr. Howlett, known for his upbeat sense of humour, was not afraid of his work. He found it exciting.

"I'm a fisherman and I've been fishing for half of my life and I know what it's all about with ropes and things like that," he told CBC Radio in 2013.

"Somehow, fishermen try to make a living and they do what they do, and they have to, and whales seem to get caught every once in a while," he said. "And when it does, we are there to help out."

Five days before his death, Mr. Howlett had taken part in freeing another entangled whale. Last year, he was involved in rescuing two whales in the Bay of Fundy in less than four days.

Joseph Michael Howlett was born on June 23, 1958, in Lunenburg, a quaint coastal town on Nova Scotia's south shore. Though fishing was once the mainstay of life in the town, Mr. Howlett didn't hail from a long line of fishermen. His father, Jim, worked for the railway and his mother, Jean, was a school teacher. Mr. Howlett spent much of his childhood outdoors fly fishing and setting snares in the woods. At the age of 16, he left home and went to sea. He got on with the Canadian Coast Guard and travelled up through the Arctic Ocean.

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In 1986, the Coast Guard took him to Campobello Island, a place fewer than 900 people call home. At a dance at the local Legion, a woman named Darlene Brown caught his eye. Within a year, they were married. His bride was raised in a family of fishermen and Mr. Howlett was welcomed onto their fishing boats. Before long, he was making his living fishing everything from lobster to snow crab.

"He loved being at sea," Mr. Conway said. "I know Joe enjoyed the challenge of being at sea."

Mr. Howlett was well-liked in the tight-knit fishing community. Wearing his trademark ballcap and sunglasses everywhere he went, he was known on the island for his jokes and for flashing the peace sign rather than giving a standard wave when driving by.

"People adored him because Joe saw the good in everyone," Ms. Howlett said.

At a party, Mr. Howlett liked to play his harmonica or the spoons. A trip to the grocery store was never quick. He would always run into people he knew and spend time talking and telling jokes.

When he wasn't fishing, he loved to spend time with his two sons and grandchildren. He also played baseball and coached a girls' team.

"Joe loved excitement. He loved life," Ms. Howlett said.

A religious man, he appreciated the wonders of nature, whether it was the large whales he rescued, a tiny bird, or the pattern of the waves on any given day. He was also fascinated with the night sky. He often stargazed and tried to get other people to share his enthusiasm for astronomy.

Every year, he helped make the Christmas season special in his house knowing it was important to his wife. Despite grumbling about having to hear carols for more than a month before Christmas, he would faithfully decorate his house with bright lights, often after working a long day fishing. When he was finished, he would go to his sons' houses to help them, too.

"He would have done something for anyone," Ms. Howlett said. "He's not your average Joe."

Mr. Howlett's death was the first in the world of a trained whale rescuer, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Following his death, whale rescues in Canada are suspended until Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada complete their investigations into the tragedy, Mr. Conway said.

"The last thing he would want is for us to stop," Mr. Conway said. "He gave his life to save a whale."

Mr. Howlett leaves his wife, Darlene; sons, Chad and Tyler; grandchildren, Mason, Haylee and Rylan; brothers Vernon, Doug and Tony; sister, Mary Ellen; and several nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his parents and his brother David.

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