Entangled Humpback Whale Set Free
First, it should be understood that disentangling a whale requires a lot of specialized training, moving up the ranks through a series of intensive certifications, and ultimately special federal permits. This sort of thing is forbidden for the average Joe who may think all he has to do is throw on his SCUBA tanks and grab a dive knife. Tarzan would not qualify. Too many things can go bad that might further injure the whale and/or lead to the severe injury or death of the would be savior.
That being said, there are people with these certifications that also possess a quiver of sophisticated tools and access to a variety of technologies that are on standby and ready to mobilize when a call comes in. And that call must begin with some ligitimate coordinates of the location of the entangled animal.
On Thursday, June 5, 2014, the Condor Express was just finishing up a whale watch trip out on the feeding grounds where dozens of humpback whales were observed when Captain Dave Beezer and his crew noticed a whale acting in an unusual manner on the surface nearby. The boat was slowly moved into position and an adult humpback whale was found to be entangled in green and black polypropylene rope. This rope encircled the whale a couple of times around its middle, and had pinned down its long right pectoral fin and hog-tied its tail flukes. The animal had just enough mobility to be able to flop along with its left pectoral fin and was able to raise its head enough to expose its blowholes and breathe.
The green line was attached to a surface float that marked one end of some commercial fishing gear on the bottom of the ocean, 700 feet below. The rescue team ran the numbers on the float through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the owner was contacted. This fisherman was very helpful and provided all the detailed information about his gear that the team needed to know, and he played an important part in the rescue effort. He explained that the line entangling our humpback was marking one end of a groundline attached to approximately ten heavy traps connected in a string approximately 2,700 feet long and used to capture spot prawn (Pandalus platyceros). On the far end of the groundline there was a very heavy anchor. Being entangled as it was, our humpback whale was not only somewhat hog-tied, but was also anchored to the sea floor. We also learned from the fisherman that the whale had moved about two miles from the original location of his gear.
On Friday, June 6, 2014 a Whale Entanglement Team (WET) that included Keith Yip and Jody Westberg from Sea World, Dave Beezer and Peter Sommers from Santa Barbara, and Captain Charlie and Mike from the NOAA R/V Shearwater, left Santa Barbara Harbor at 7am. By 8:30 they had relocated the entangled humpback whale and the rescue effort commenced by launching a small soft bottom inflatable boat to closely assess the situation. Such entanglements always vary in the way that the rope is wrapped around the animal’s body, how many times it is wrapped, any knots that have been created in the line, the depth of any wounds caused by the rope, and so forth. An individualized and highly flexible plan must be devised through the collective brain power of the experts making direct observations on the scene.
In this case there were many hours spent observing the whale and its situation. For the most part the animal appeared calm but greatly fatigued. It signaled its distress by vocalizing/trumpeting with almost every breath. The team remained very cautious during the assessment process, and it’s a good thing they did, because at one point the humpback arched up as best it could and threw its tail. A more reckless team might have suffered some damage.
In the end, a special V-shaped knife attached to a long carbon fiber pole, tools that were fabricated at Sea World specifically for these situations, was used. This was a “flying knife,” that was released from its pole when in place around the entangling line. A rope attached to the flying knife was then tethered to the inflatable boat, and then the boat and its engine supplied the force necessary to cut the animal free.
Throughout the ten hour rescue process the team and its patient were surrounded by a steady stream of curious common dolphins and several California sea lions.
So it was that the flying knife had freed the humpback whales tail flukes. Though very exhausted, the whale did move forward slowly under the power of its flukes, and since the rest of the entangling rope was securely anchored to the sea floor, this swimming effort was enough to release the remaining line and set the whale completely free. A series of fluke prints on the ocean surface confirmed this. After a quarter hour of slow and steady movement, the whale seemed to regain strength, picked up speed to 10 or 12 knots, and was last seen heading south towards Santa Cruz Island.
As a footnote to a day where careful training, planning and careful execution resulted in a successful disentanglement, the commercial fisherman was able to retrieve and salvage his gear. Thus we end our story with a happy team, happy fisherman and most of all…a happy whale.
NOTE: I was not there. I’m just doing my best to report what was told to me. If you were there and have found any major errors in this report, please let me know.