Collaborative rescue frees humpback whale off Northern California

A juvenile humpback whale about 25 feet long and entangled in numerous lines of fixed fishing gear was freed on Tuesday by responders from the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, Humboldt State University, Oregon State University, U.S. Coast Guard, California Whale Rescue, and local fishermen and community members. 

California Whale Rescue Joins Oceanic Society to Advance Entangled Whale Response Efforts in California

ROSS, CA, August 4, 2016 — California Whale Rescue, a network of volunteers and institutions working to prevent whale entanglement and save entangled whales, has joined Oceanic Society, America’s first non-profit dedicated to ocean conservation, founded in 1969. The new alliance will help generate greater awareness of the issue of whale entanglement, and will allow California Whale Rescue to unify and advance its response network by providing increased training opportunities, standardizing communications and resources, and helping to develop best practices for disentanglement.

California Whale Rescue’s volunteers have decades of experience in whale disentanglement, and continually work with stakeholders including the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Office of Protected Resources, local government, state sponsored working groups, non-profit research and conservation organizations, and the fishing community to mitigate future entanglements.

Oceanic Society is a non-profit organization based in Marin County, California, whose mission is to conserve marine wildlife and habitats by deepening the connections between people and nature. Oceanic Society is a pioneer in responsible whale watching, having led educational whale watching excursions in the Bay Area for more than 40 years, and has supported a variety of whale research and conservation programs in California and worldwide. Oceanic Society also leads international expeditions that support conservation, coordinates global sea turtle conservation efforts through the State of the World’s Sea Turtles (SWOT) Program, and is leading an innovative Blue Habits program that aims to motivate ocean-friendly changes in human behavior.

Together, California Whale Rescue and Oceanic Society will work to effect real change in whale entanglement response and prevention, and, through greater awareness, will help advance existing whale conservation efforts in California and beyond.

Whale Entanglement Team (WET) Successfully Disentangle Humpback Whale May 14, 2014

A humpback whale entangled in crab fishing gear and struggling to swim was spotted by a whale watch boat in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary around noon on Sunday, April 27. What followed over the next two-and-one-half weeks was an extraordinary rescue effort by trained responders of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program along the Central California Coast. 

Entangled Humpback Whale in Monterey Bay

MOSS LANDING (August 28, 2014) - Blue Ocean Whale Watch’s tour turned into a call for help in Monterey Bay when Kate Cummings, Naturalist and member of the Whale Entanglement Team (W.E.T.), observed a humpback whale with unusual surface behaviors. Cummings spotted a green line across the head of the humpback with line trailing on each side of the animal. She activated the Whale disentanglement network by reporting the entangled whale to local W.E.T. member, Peggy Stap of Marine Life Studies. Stap immediately called Pieter Folkens, the lead for W.E.T. This initiated a rapid response of the whale entanglement team, with intent to assess the entanglement and disentangle the humpback whale.

Cummings said, “The humpback whale was doing a cross between a head rise and chin slap. The whale was surfacing aggressively with many head rises and a few chin slaps. The whale appeared to be trying to get out of the line wrapped on its head.” She also observed additional, agitated, humpbacks with the entangled whale.

As the Whale Entanglement Team members converged to leave out of Moss Landing Harbor, Cummings monitored the whale as it began traveling westward. To the benefit of all, the humpback threw the gear. Cummings noticed a weathered crab pot buoy surface as the whale freed itself of the gear. Blue Ocean Whale Watch stayed with the gear as another whale watch boat, Fast Raft, monitored the whale to see if any additional lines, or debris, were on the whale. Nothing was observed. The whale was swimming and acting normally, no longer agitated now that it was free of the entanglement.

Two members of the Whale Entanglement Team, Scott Benson and John Douglas, retrieved the crab pot, crab pot buoy, and 200 feet of line while onboard the Sheila B, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories boat.

Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, said, “This was another great example of how our ocean user community is working with our network of responders to help identify and monitor entangled whales so that we can assess the situation and hopefully remove the entanglement.”

Entanglement in fishing gear is a documented source of injury and mortality to all whales, especially humpbacks in our local waters. During a three-year study, SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks), researchers determined that 30 to 50% of the humpback whale populations in the North Pacific have entanglement scars. However, true entanglement rates are expected to be even higher. It is estimated that for every 1 report of an entangled whale, there are at least 10 more entangled whales not seen. As ocean users or consumers, please make smart choices with your seafood, and notify authorities if gear is missing.

Whale Freed from Buoy Entanglement on 10/29/14

Pieter Folkens and members of the highly-trained Whale Entanglement Team approach an entangled humpback whale.

Monterey, CA – November 1, 2014. The Whale Entanglement Team (WET) disentangled another whale in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary on October 29, 2014. It is believed the whale had been entangled for three weeks. On October 4, 2014, a Waverider buoy placed approximately 25 nm west of Pt. Pinos/Monterey stopped transmitting. On Friday, October 24th, Shana Rae out of Santa Cruz was hired to check on the buoy. Arriving at the coordinates for the buoy’s mooring, Shana Rae found a whale entangled in line believed to be the mooring for the Waverider buoy. Shana Rae’s captain contacted the whale watching fleet over the radio to report the incident. The captain described the condition of the whale as “weak” and “struggling.” Fast Raft captain contacted Pieter Folkens, lead of WET, with the information.

Folkens spoke with the Shana Rae's captain who later sent three photos taken that afternoon, confirming the entanglement of a sub-adult humpback with significant damage to the flukes. A response was not mounted that day due to the late hour of the report and the distance offshore. Weather precluded any response over the weekend. On Wednesday, October 29th WET responded. Assets and personnel deployed included a HH-65 (Dolphin) helicopter out of USCG Air Station Alameda, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s 67-foot research vessel Fulmar and crew, NOAA Enforcement, a Waverider buoy representative, and eight members of the WET response team headed by Folkens. WET members are trained and respond under the auspices of NOAA's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

WET analyzed the entanglement video captured on an underwater camera. The video revealed a severe tail entanglement at the fluke insertion with substantial necrotic tissue. Whale lice were present and the skin on the body indicated poor health overall. They devised a plan of action and executed it which involved two cuts on the line wrapped around whale. After the cuts were made the entanglement slipped off and the whale swam away. The team was estactic to see another whale freed from a life-threatening entanglement.

Peggy Stap, Director of Marine Life Studies and founding member of WET, explained, "The feeling of joy I felt the moment when the final cut of the line was made and the young whale swam free was something I could not put into words. It was amazing to know our efforts as a team gave this whale a renewed chance to be a productive member of the local population of endangered humpback whales.”

WET is a group of 30 plus unpaid professionals (volunteers) assembled and trained for the purpose of disentangling whales. Most of WET’s core members have direct affiliations with other conservation organizations.

Meet members of WET in person Saturday, November 15, 2014 in Monterey, California at special event, Saving Whales – One at a Time, with reception following presentation. Learn first hand about the level of skill and inter-agency collaboration needed to save whales from life-threatening entanglements.