Wayne Ledwell has never officially kept count, but he estimates that he and his wife, Julie Huntington, have rescued over 150 whales off the province’s coast over the past 30 years.
For their tireless efforts, Nature Newfoundland and Labrador awarded the couple the Tuck Walters Award on Thursday evening in a ceremony at Memorial University.
The award is given for outstanding contributions to the advancement of natural history appreciation and protection, outside the parameters of the recipient’s employment responsibilities. This is the first time in the history of the award that a couple has been recognized.
Huntington and Ledwell do this work through their non-profit organization, the Whale Release and Strandings Group.
Their group is the only one in the province authorized by the government to disentangle cetaceans and sea turtles caught in fishing gear or stranded on the coastline.
Ledwell says “it’s pretty overwhelming” to be mentioned in the same category as the award’s namesakes, Leslie Tuck and Harry Walters.
Tuck was Newfoundland’s first dominion wildlife officer, and Walters was the director of the Newfoundland Rangers Force. Both Walters and Tuck were instrumental in establishing the province’s first seabird reserves.
Huntington and Ledwell showed humility as they spoke about their work. When asked what drives them to do it, Ledwell joked, “I’m probably half-foolish.”
But he is serious about the work.
“We know that it’s just not all about the whales, it’s about people. It’s a community story wherever we go. I’ve got to go to every nook and cranny in Newfoundland over the years,” said Ledwell.
He says it is hard when they have to damage a fisherman’s expensive gear to release a whale.
“But we know that they need us there because they can’t get them out, and the whales need us,” he said, “So it’s a win-win, I suppose, for making the best of a bad situation.”
Noting the dangerous and on-call nature of the work, Ledwell says it is more of a passion than a job.
Huntington agrees, adding, “We think of it more as something that has to be done.”
She says when she first started releasing whales with Ledwell, she felt like she wanted to quit at the beginning of every release.
“Because it was pretty traumatic. The whales were entangled so much,” she said. “Then, at the end, you’re exhilarated and you’re ready to go again.”
Bill Montevecchi, chair of the Tuck Walters Award committee, says they try to choose recipients whose work has a long-term effect. He says Huntington and Ledwell have championed whale release around the world.
“They’ve managed to keep a lot of whales alive that would otherwise be dead,” Montevecchi said. “Some of those whales live longer than we do, and so you think about the lives they’ve saved. … In this sense, it’s a timeless kind of award. Every time they save a whale, and they’ve saved many of them, it goes on for decades.
“If you translate that into subsequent generations, it’s going on to lots of whales that are in our province. Those whales are generating interest in terms of biology, in terms of tourism, and so the effect is really quite profound.”
Nature NL president Doug Ballam says the pair’s work comes at a perilous time for many species of whales, particularly the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
“(They) are really conservation heroes,” Ballam said. “Not for Newfoundland, or even Canada, but for North America and the world.”