Rescuers Partly Free Ensnared Whale

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NOAA permitted and trained personnel cut a line from an entangled humpback whale near San Clemente on Sunday. An underwater view shows the line circling the whale’s body. Photos courtesy of NOAA
NOAA permitted and trained personnel cut a line from an entangled humpback whale near San Clemente on Sunday. The permit number is NOAA MMHSRP Permit # 18786-01.  Photos courtesy of NOAA

A juvenile humpback whale about 25 feet long and ensnared by crab gear from Washington was partially cut free on Sunday near San Clemente by rescuers from several organizations, including the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

Within hours, reports of a second entangled whale off Dana Point came in from Captain Dave’s Dolphin Safari and from Dana Wharf Sportfishing. From photos, responders determined that this was the same whale that responders had partially disentangled by severing a line that encircled its body, but still trailed a 20-foot line from its mouth.

The rescue was one of the first since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration temporarily suspended whale rescue efforts after a Canadian fisherman died when hit by a fluke while trying to disentangle a North Atlantic right whale off the coast of New Brunswick in July.

The agency evaluated safety protocols and worked through the process in order to get people back in the water, said Justin Viezbicke, NOAA Fisheries’ California stranding network coordinator, based in Long Beach. “There’s always risk involved; it’s an agitated animal that is pretty stressed out,” he said.

Viezbicke personally cut the line on Sunday by wielding a 20-foot long bladed titanium pole from a Zodiak boat deployed by the Marine Animal Rescue, based in El Segundo.

“We spend a lot of time making observations,” he said. “We used a pole to stay out of the danger zone and put ourselves in the right position.”

Peter Wallerstein, director of the Marine Animal Rescue, said the rescue protocol has changed in the 30 years since he’s been involved freeing thousands of entangled whales. Rescuers now are forbidden from getting in the water with the animals or getting near their mouths, he said. “They are all scary,” said Wallerstein, who accompanied Viezbicke on the inflatable boat during the rescue Sunday. “The whale was trying to outmaneuver us, to avoid us,” he said.

An underwater view shows the line encircling the body of the whale.
An underwater view shows the line encircling the body of the whale.

Given the wounds around the whale’s body, Viezbicke figures the animal became ensnared weeks ago and has covered a distance of at least 1,000 miles. A numbered buoy entrapped with the line provided information about its origin in Washington and purpose, marking a permitted Dungeness crab trap, Milbury said.

The day before, after residents in Palos Verdes first reported observing the entangled whale, Wallerstein said his organization sought permission from NOAA to get close enough to attach a telemetry buoy to the ensnaring line that included a satellite tag to track the animal’s movements. The organization has been involved in 264 marine mammal rescues through June 30, its website says.

On Sunday, teams from Marine Animal Rescue pushed off from Dana Point Harbor while Pacific Marine Mammal Center and Sea World Rescue departed from Oceanside Harbor. The teams took three hours to locate the whale four miles offshore of the closed San Onofre power plant and then attached floats to the trailing line to slow the whale’s movements and keep it at the surface.

Once the whale slowed, the team cut the line using a special “flying” knife, NOAA spokesman Jim Milbury explained. The knife is attached to a pole, with a line back to the rescue boat. Once the knife was in position, responders removed the pole and the drag of the boat on the line connected to cut through the entanglement. The line wrapped around the whale’s body then fell off to the right side and trailed out the right side of the whale’s mouth, he said.

Unfortunately mouth entanglements are very difficult to remove, so the line was cut as short as possible with the expectation that the whale will shake the remnant line on its own, Milbury said.

A second Zodiak from Laguna’s Pacific Marine Mammal Center assisted, manned by Lindsey Van Schoick, the center’s animal care supervisor, and volunteers Rob Capobianco and Billy Long, said spokeswoman Krysta Higuchi.

This was only the second call to assist with a whale entanglement this year by the center, whose trained rescue team averages 150 calls a year, she said. Most involve smaller marine mammals. To date, the center has rescued 111 sea lions, 53 elephant seals, four harbor seals, two Guadalupe fur seals, a dolphin and a sea turtle.

“It’s still above average, but it has calmed down,” said Higuchi, citing a significant drop from a recent peak in 2015 when 600 sick seals and sea lions crowded its pools in Laguna Canyon. Last year, rescues dropped by half to 300, she said.

The public can report entangled whales to the SOS-WHALE hotline (1-877-767-9425).


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