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. 

April 27: Montery Bay National Marine Sanctuary

The initial call of a 25-foot humpback whale entangled in fishing gear came at approximately 12:00 p.m. from the whale-watching vessel Pt. Sur Clipper. The animal was reported as moving very slowly trailing line and a buoy. The whale was reported as stressed and breathing frequently at the surface. Two other whale-watching boats stayed with the whale until responders were able to arrive on the scene.

The Whale Entanglement Team (WET), part of the federal Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, arrived to assess the animal’s condition. As sea conditions deteriorated, responders were able to attach a satellite tag to the animal and take video and photos of the entanglement. They determined the severity of the entanglement was life-threatening and devised a rescue strategy before returning to port because of darkness.

April 28: Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

The WET team led by Pieter Folkens re-located the tagged whale at approximately 11:00 a.m. A U.S. Coast Guard Motorized Life Boat stood by as safety support. The team removed a crab pot and approximately 250 feet of line and retrieved the gear before standing down due to high wind and waves.

The team had hoped the removal of the most inhibiting part of the entanglement — the pot and line — would be sufficient to allow the rest of the entangling line to simply slip off now that the dragging gear was released and the whale could swim more freely.

April 29: Point Pinos

The satellite fixes from the tag indicated the entanglement had not slipped off, but the whale was swimming more freely — so much so that it had moved off shore south of Point Pinos and beyond the range of the responders’ small boats.

May 1: Point Sur

The whale is still swimming pretty far off the coast in a rugged area just south of Point Sur. There were no places for the response boats to launch between Monterey and Morro Bay.

May 5: Morro Bay

The whale moves a bit closer to shore and is nearing Morro Bay. The WET team decides to attempt a response. Justin Viezbicke, the NOAA West Coast Stranding Coordinator, arranges assistance from California Department of Fish and Wildlife and their vessel. However, strong winds and steep seas put the response on hold.

May 7: Point Arguello

The whale is approximately 4 miles SW of Point Arguello. Weather and location make any rescue attempt doubtful at this time. The speed and trajectory of the whale suggests it will be south of Point Conception soon. Team members from the San Francisco Bay Area depart for Santa Barbara to respond the next day.

May 8: Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

WET and NOAA responders meet early in the am to prepare for response on board the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s 62 foot research vessel Shearwater. However, the whale moves farther off shore and the winds pick up, so the response is postponed, waiting for a better weather window and whale less than 50 nm from the put-in point.

May 10: Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

The whale starts to move into the Santa Barbara Channel. Gale force winds predicted for the next several days. Nothing can be done.

May 12: Eastern Santa Barbara Channel

The whale makes it to the eastern tip of Santa Cruz Island in the Santa Barbara Channel. The team speculates whether the whale will continue south or turn around. Strong offshore Santa Ana winds are predicted for the next several days in the eastern channel, but less in the western channel. Late in the evening, the whale turns around and heads west.

May 13: Santa Cruz Island

The whale moves farther west, between Santa Cruz Island and the City of Santa Barbara. The WET and NOAA teams decide to make a move for a Wednesday response if the position is similar the next day and providing that wind conditions have subsided as predicted.

May 14: Goleta Point, Santa Barbara

The WET responders, Sea World Rescue, and the NOAA Stranding Coordinator, rendezvous with the CINMS crew of Shearwater at 04:00 and begin to ready the response. At 05:30, the responders depart Santa Barbara Harbor on Shearwater to search for the whale based on the latest satellite fix. The team locates the whale approximately five miles off Goleta Point at 07:28. The humpback whale that traveled approximately 610 nautical miles from where it was first found is free of gear at 08:51. The satellite tracking tag is removed, remaining line recovered, and the whale is reassessed and monitored for another hour just to be sure. During the process, the team determined the pot line became knotted in a loop and wrapped around the tail (peduncle) at the fluke insertion three times. Because the pot had weighed so heavily, the line became tightly synched and twisted around the tail, cutting deeply (several inches) into the whale. It would not have come undone without the final effort to cut off the entangling line. Prognosis for survival is good, but not assured.