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.