MARINE rescuers who spent almost eight hours working to free a humpback whale snared in shark netting off the Gold Coast yesterday have described the operation as their most difficult yet.
The whale was spotted towing a long trail of netting by ski paddlers early yesterday about 5km east of Currumbin.
The SeaWorld rescue team, Queensland Boating and Fisheries and a shark contractor caught up with the whale around 10.30am near the Tugun desalination barge.
At least 15 people were involved in the rescue which lasted for almost eight hours.
Mr Long said the whale - a sub adult, about 9m in length - was remarkably strong considering what it had already endured.
"It had an awful amount of net attached to its tail but it was still very, very strong,'' he said.
The net - 600m long and 5m deep with a heavy anchor and a 16 gauge chain - was reported missing from Currumbin Creek last Saturday.
Mr Long said the rescue was the most difficult he had been involved in over his 34-year career due to the whale's strength.
"We attached floats to stop the whale from diving and to allow us to get close enough to its tail to cut it free.
"The buoys were tied to the SeaWorld vessel and at one stage the shark contractor's boat - which is 35-36ft - and it still managed to pull them under.''
"It was so strong it kept breaking our gears, straightening our grappling hooks. We replaced our buoys at least a dozen times during the day.'
Late in the afternoon rescuers were able to get the floats close enough to the whale's tail to hook the net and immobilise its tail, thereby preventing it from swimming.
Using specially designed knives, rescuers were then able to cut the net free.
"First we had to get rid of that anchor and chain to allow it to swim a bit. Once they were off it took off north. It had to be pretty tired by that stage,'' Mr Long said.
"We've done a lot of rescues over the years, I couldn't even count how many, but this would have to be the longest and certainly the most difficult.''
The whale - once freed - appeared relatively unscathed by the ordeal.
"This would have been enormously distressing for the whale. It's had that net attached to it for over a week. I can't imagine the relief that animal must have felt to be cut free. It would have lost skin but was otherwise physically unharmed.''
As the rescue attempt dragged on organisers pondered whether they would have to leave the buoys attached to the whale and return this morning.
"Everyone worked so hard and no one was going to give up on this animal,'' Mr Long said.
The whale migration season runs until December, with a lot of the ocean giants spotted in recent weeks as they head south.
Some seasons have seen up to 10 rescues.