A juvenile humpback whale, draped in heavy Dungeness crab gear and leaving a gash around its midsection, is given a second chance at life thanks to some expert work from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials and a rescue team from San Diego SeaWorld.
The whale was first sighted Sunday, September 25, off Carlsbad by a private boater who alerted SeaWorld rescue teams. SeaWorld provided NOAA’s marine mammal stranding team with documentation of the 30-foot juvenile whale, including photos of where the struggling animal became entangled.
When NOAA teams responded the next day, the whale had traveled just a few miles south and was recovered off San Elijo State Beach. Lifeguards, state park officials and harbor patrol boats had been guarding the animal to make sure it didn’t go missing.
Justin Viezbicke, NOAA’s California marine mammal stranding coordinator, and Justin Greenman, the agency’s deputy coordinator, were aboard their inflatable lifeboat along with a second team from SeaWorld.
As we got closer to the tired and weakened whale, “we saw the one line that we thought would take care of everything,” Viezbicke said. “We needed three attempts. The third time I got the knife on the leash and was able to cut it free.”
The teams removed about 300 feet of line and five buoys from the whale. The equipment came from the Dungeness crab fishery in Oregon, so the whale was likely tied up in it for several months, Viezbicke said.
The tangle was sore between the dorsal fin and the blowhole and there was a huge laceration on the whale’s side where the lines dug in and weighed down, he said.
“It was one of those situations where we were a bit lucky,” said Viezbicke. “Sometimes it takes several days and we are not always successful.”
Last year there were 27 confirmed entanglements off the west coast. Of these, the teams responded to 19 whales, successfully removing the gear tangles from three and at least part of the lines from another four. The rest were unsuccessful attempts.
Officials say they’ve seen a higher number of entanglements since 2014, with peak years from 2015 to 2018.
Humpback whales are the most commonly reported entanglements. In 2021 there were 17. Other whales caught in the gear included four gray whales, two transient killer whales, a fin whale, a minke whale and two unidentified whales.
Just days after NOAA successfully rescued the humpback whale, a boat captain from Dana Point encountered another entangled humpback whale on the back side of Catalina Island.
Billy Miyagawa, who works at the Dana Point Harbor, was on a fishing trip and was scanning the water when he saw buoys floating near a fighting whale. The equipment was wrapped around the humpback whale’s tail and Miyagawa, worried about the time, said he thought he could make a few quick cuts with an 8-inch kitchen knife and free the whale.
As he swam over and started pulling on the buoys, he said the whale made a whooshing sound and just stood still.
“One rope was really tight. When I cut that it shot down. Then I cut the last buoys and ropes off the stern,” he said. “I had to pull her out of the flesh; it was so tight.”
It took about four minutes, he said. As it swam back, the whale let out a louder bugle.
Miyagawa said the gear he pulled from the whale was also tagged with information from the Oregon fishery.
Viezbicke said NOAA has attached a satellite buoy to this whale and a rescue is in the works. But when Miyagawa pulled out of gear, the transmission stopped.
NOAA officials discourage those who aren’t specifically trained in whale disengagement from volunteering to help rescue these animals, instead asking them to sign up with information on the whale’s whereabouts.
Disentanglement work is very dangerous and should only be done by NOAA-authorized people, Viezbicke said. “Although this person’s intent was benevolent, it ultimately put him in a position that could have resulted in injury or even death.”
And Viezbicke said they can’t be sure the entire tangled line has been removed.
Miyagawa said he was contacted by NOAA and that he plans to return the satellite buoy used to tag the whale.
The public should report whales in distress to either the 24/7 hotline: 877-SOS-WHALE (767-9425) or the United States Coast Guard on VHF CH-16.
https://www.ocregister.com/2022/10/04/back-to-back-humpback-whales-freed-from-tangled-lines-off-southern-california/ Back-to-back humpback whales rescued from tangled lines off Southern California – Orange County Register