Although AWF focuses most of our conservation efforts in Alaska, we are very much involved in California as well, and this summer was an unusually busy one there as we responded to a number of large whales in distress. One notable response involved a humpback whale with a tail entangled in gear that originated in the Humboldt area of California’s north coast.
The animal was first sighted off Moss Landing in Monterey Bay dragging what appeared to be a crab pot and line. As is typically our first response, we launched a team to conduct an initial assessment of the animal's condition and to deploy a satellite telemetry buoy to track it if we had to return to port. When we found the whale it was tightly wrapped with several turns of ‘Blue Steel’ (read: very strong!) crab pot line. Unfortunately, before we could begin to disentangle it, the weather turned on us, bringing with it high winds and waves, and we were forced to leave.
When conditions improved the next day, we set out, this time with the assistance of the US Coast Guard. We were eventually able to find the whale using the information transmitted to us from the telemetry buoy we affixed to the entangling gear the day before. Our first goal was to remove the heavy crab pot that was impeding the animal’s ability to swim, after which we could attempt to disentangle the line wrapped around the animal's tail. It took a great deal of effort to get the crab pot to the surface and liberate it from the animal, but once we did so we were able to study the wrap more closely. It turned out that the line was wrapped at least three and possibly four times around the animal’s tail and had cut deeply into the skin. Recognizing that cutting the line would be extremely difficult, we decided to try to unwrap it instead. Unfortunately, as had happened the day before, the weather worsened and waves began breaking over the bow of both our response boat and the larger support boat that was standing by. So once again, we were forced to make the difficult decision to stand down and (hopefully) return in the morning.
While we were back on shore remotely tracking the whale and waiting for conditions to improve, the animal –now free from the crab pot and much of the line – swam all the way down to the Channel Islands! So we packed up our gear and drove down to Santa Barbara, where we joined the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary boat Shearwater and disentangling colleagues Keith Yip, Dave Beezer, and California Stranding Coordinator Justin Viezbicke. Again with the aid of the satellite buoy, we were able to find the whale. Yet this time we observed that the wrap on the tail was more complicated than we had originally imagined. It was now knotted tightly around the tail!
The whale was very sensitive to its injuries. I could touch the surface of the flukes, but when I got anywhere near the injuries, it would “buck” in response. We recognized that an aggressive cutting approach would have caused the whale to lash out even more, so we approached very cautiously and, with little hope for success, I did my best to make one well-placed cut without contacting the whale. Incredibly, it worked, and after several minutes with the drag of the boats tugging on the lines, they slipped off and the whale swam away!
When it was all over, we were split regarding our opinions of the whale’s chances for survival. The injury was severe and the ordeal was obviously stressful (for the animal and the team!). So we were especially encouraged to see the whale a little more than a week later back in Monterey Bay, feeding, with its injuries well on their way to being fully healed. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for another humpback that was found around the same time stranded and deceased in Southern California with a similar tail entanglement. Regrettably, that whale was not discovered in time for us to launch a disentanglement effort, but it clearly demonstrated what the fate of our Monterey whale would have been were we not able to cut the gear away.
Ultimately, this event highlighted the importance of having well-trained teams, armed with the right tools and ready to respond to reports of entanglements. Though we wish these incidences were rarer than they are, when they do occur, we are glad to be part of the National team of responders!
- Pieter Folkens, AWF founding board member