Collaborative rescue frees humpback whale off Northern California

Original article published by NOAA Fisheries.


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. 

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear surfaces for air about two miles off Crescent City, California. Disentanglement teams working with local fishermen and others freed the whale on Tuesday July 19. Photo credit: Bryant Anderson/NOAA Fisheries, taken under NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP Permit# 18786-01

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear surfaces for air about two miles off Crescent City, California. Disentanglement teams working with local fishermen and others freed the whale on Tuesday July 19. Photo credit: Bryant Anderson/NOAA Fisheries, taken under NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP Permit# 18786-01

A fishing vessel first reported the entangled humpback about two miles off Crescent City on Thursday and provided initial observations to NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Footage from a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter flight on Sunday helped determine that the entanglement involved several sets of fixed fishing gear wrapped around the tail flukes, the pectoral fins, and the mouth. The gear had essentially anchored the whale in place. Entanglements of this severity can lead to the eventual amputation of the flukes, and possible death of the whale.

In this aerial photo taken by a drone, disentanglement teams work to free a 25-foot long humpback whale entangled in fishing gear. The whale is visible on the left and the crew in the blue boat is attempting to access the lines to cut the whale free. Photo credit: Ben Lester/NOAA Fisheries, taken under NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP Permit# 18786-01

In this aerial photo taken by a drone, disentanglement teams work to free a 25-foot long humpback whale entangled in fishing gear. The whale is visible on the left and the crew in the blue boat is attempting to access the lines to cut the whale free. Photo credit: Ben Lester/NOAA Fisheries, taken under NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP Permit# 18786-01

After assessing the entanglement on Tuesday morning, the team first cut the lines affecting the mouth and then the pectoral fins, before turning their attention to the main point of entanglement, the tail flukes. The severe downward pull of the fishing gear prevented the whale from raising its tail to the surface. The team used large floats, or “poly balls,” to help lift lines off the bottom, creating some slack in the lines so the whale could surface and provide responders better access to lines around the tail.

The humpback whale was severely entangled, with multiple lines of fishing gear weighing down its tail. With the help of local fishermen, disentanglement teams took some tension off the lines to help access them and cut the whale free. Photo credit: Bryant Anderson/NOAA Fisheries, taken under NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP Permit #18786-01

The humpback whale was severely entangled, with multiple lines of fishing gear weighing down its tail. With the help of local fishermen, disentanglement teams took some tension off the lines to help access them and cut the whale free. Photo credit: Bryant Anderson/NOAA Fisheries, taken under NOAA Fisheries MMHSRP Permit #18786-01

Ultimately the poly ball floats did not provide enough slack in the lines, so the team worked with local fishermen in a carefully planned operation to haul up some of the heavy gear weighing down the tail. That created enough slack to let the whale surface, allowing the team to make the necessary cuts to remove all the entangling gear from the whale.

“This was a real team effort that succeeded in large part thanks to the community and fishing industry pitching in wherever they could,” said Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “Last week our hearts sank when a disentanglement team member in Canada was lost, and that reminded us just how important safety is out there on the water. Fortunately today everyone is safe, including the whale.”

NOAA Fisheries thanks all the personnel involved, including teams from Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, Humboldt State University, Oregon State University, California Whale Rescue, Point Blue Conservation Science and community members who helped staff the response teams and standby vessels. In addition, NOAA Fisheries appreciates the help of fishermen who originally reported the entanglement, removed gear in the nearby vicinity to help reduce added threat to the already challenging situation, and assisted with evaluation and successful removal of the gear. 

The U.S. Coast Guard also provided essential air and vessel support. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Barracuda, home ported at the Woodley Island Marina, in Eureka, California, provided a safety zone and support for the small boat teams who freed the whale.

All authorized entanglement response efforts are permitted under NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program # 18786-01.