A stunning new video appears to show a man using a large knife to free an endangered northern right whale from a mass of rope and fishing gear in which it had become entangled.

The video was shot on a GoPro camera off the coast of Virginia near Virginia Beach, by a fisherman who spotted the whale, realized it was in trouble and decided to help.

Mate Adrian Colaprete was fishing with Capt. Pat Foster of Wave Runner Sportfishing Charters, based in Rudee Inlet, Va., when they spotted the rare right whale, which immediately caught their interest.

Then they noticed a pair of "poly balls," the floating buoys used by fisherman to mark their nets, trailing about 200 metres behind the whale -- and immediately knew the whale was in trouble.

"Once we realized it was a right whale we knew we had to do something. If we were able to do something we were going to try to do it," Colaprete said.

Foster then positioned the boat about 50 metres in front of the whale, and Colaprete quickly donned a mask and snorkel, fins and his head-mounted camera, and jumped in with a large knife of the variety often used to clean fish.

The video, posted online, shows the massive creature slowly approaching Colaprete and coming alongside, dragging a long rope which appears to be wrapped around its torso.

As it comes broadside to the diver, the whale appears to pause for a moment, giving Colaprete the opportunity to swim underneath the whale and cut the rope.

"Where the two lines bridled around those fins and come together there's a perfect spot back there behind the tail away from the danger to go ahead and make the cut," Colaprete explains in the video. "I knew there was so much pressure on the lines, if I cut the line it would be a one-cut deal, it would go up through his fins and release all the pressure on him."

That's exactly what happened. Colaprete cut the line, the rope came free of the whale, the fishing gear sank away and the last shots of the video show the whale swimming off.

Colaprete said it was an "extraordinary" experience, but said he would never have taken such a risk without help, saying Foster is an experienced captain whom he trusted to handle the boat safely.