By Ben Bodart, Special to the Independent
Rescuers accomplished something of a marine miracle offshore Laguna Beach last weekend, but apparently their efforts ultimately were not enough.
Members of the town’s Pacific Marine Mammal Center and a special whale disentanglement team from the National Marine Fisheries Services successfully freed a young gray whale from gillnet and rope entangling its fluke.
Nevertheless, on Tuesday a juvenile gray whale was found dead inside Long Beach Harbor and wildlife regulators speculate it is probably is the same imperiled whale that was freed near Laguna Beach on Saturday.
And in a second rescue effort in five days, Laguna Beach’s PMMC volunteers on Thursday were working to free another whale also entangled in discarded gillnet in Redondo Beach, spokeswoman Kelli Lewis said. Thanks to a large collaborative effort to disentangle the whale, it finally broke free off shore Redondo Beach on Thursday around 2 p.m.
“All the staff was really emotional at the end of the rescue because usually the whale does not make it in this type of situation,” Dana Friedman, a 15-year PMMC volunteer and the most experienced member of Saturday’s rescue team, said Monday.
It took rescuers seven hours to free the whale entrapped by gillnet, Friedman said. Within the net that ensnared the whale, named “Bart” for the boater who monitored the animal overnight, were an adult sea lion, a five-foot leopard shark, two angel sharks, various spider crabs, fish and rays, all dead.
“This was a snapshot into what is going on in the oceans all over the world,” said Capt. Dave Anderson of Dana Point’s Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari, part of the rescue effort and the first to respond to Bart’s location. “Unfortunately, thousands of marine animals die every day from similar circumstances,” said Anderson, who has been involved in three previous whale rescues and recently published a book “Lily, A Gray Whale’s Odyssey,” about a similar ill-fated saga. In May 2010, ailing “Lily” swam listlessly into Dana Point Harbor, also entangled in fish netting and rope. Rescuers freed the animal, but it returned two days later and died at San Juan Creek.
Commercial use of gillnets, prohibited within the state-regulated area three miles from shore, is legally permitted outside the limit line, said Carrie Wilson, a marine biologist with the state Fish and Game Department in Monterey. “We don’t know where the net came from,” she said, referring to Saturday’s rescue, noting that U.S. fishermen often use tracking devices on their nets.
The rescue team first deployed buoys around the whale from Anderson’s catamaran and then rescuers equipped with special knives for cutting nets entered two inflatables boats. “The whale was pretty calm at the first approach and during the day, but the last three hours it was nervous and tried to get away when we approached it,” Anderson said.
Nearly 1,000 cetaceans die every day from similar entanglements, according to cetaceanbycatch.org, a website about ocean life.
“I want to share these real facts to let people know that thousands of ocean animals are dying everyday. Lots of people are not aware of that,” Anderson said.
Bart’s position, a few hundred yards offshore Emerald Bay, proved a lucky break by allowing rescuers to intervene before the whale’s health deteriorated. The National Marine Fisheries Services’ rules usually forbid civilians from close contact with a whale because of potential danger, said Friedman. “They allow us because the PMMC has well-trained members to do that kind of intervention,” he said.
After nearly seven hours cutting away the debris, Bart broke free. The whale remained near the rescuers even after being freed, having drifted about four miles from shore. “I didn’t expect the whale to hang around after it had the opportunity to leave,” said Friedman, “That behavior certainly left an impression.”
For Capt. Anderson, Saturday was an epic day: “That was amazing to see everybody working. It was not just about a person, it was a team working together to reach the same goal; free this whale,” he said.
Sadly, rescuers’ joy may have been premature.
Ben Bodart is an Indy intern from Belgium.