Ten days ago, on Monday, May 4, a young humpback whale was successfully disentangled from the fishing gear that was cutting into its fin and wrapped around its tail, allowing it to swim free and heal from its wounds.
A team of researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution(WHOI) was working in the Great South Channel 40 miles east-southeast of Chatham, Mass., aboard the research vessel Tioga, when they sighted the humpback whale, realized it was severely entangled and alerted a rescue team from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS).
To speed up the arrival of the rescue team, theTioga offered to provide the fuel their ship would need for its return trip and to provide a small boat for their use on the scene. Time was of the essence as the weather for the next four or five days was going to be rough and that a new spotting of the animal was unlikely for quite some time. The team followed the animal as it slowly moved northward, three or four miles from where it was first spotted, and provided updates to the PCCS team underway aboard the Ibis while they waited over the next three hours for them to arrive.
Upon arrival the PCCS team, led by Scott Landry, director of the PCCS entanglement response program, along with Brian Sharp, attached a work line to the whale’s entanglement using a thrown grappling hook. The team then boarded the Tioga’s inflatable boat to examine the whale and the extent of the entanglement. Landry and Sharp determined that the whale had 12-15 wraps of line midway down the left flipper that led to a tangle of line alongside the flank. The wraps had cut deeply through the flipper. Two lines from the tangle twisted together and wrapped around the body, just forward of the dorsal fin. Another loop of line was loosely wrapped around the tail.
Landry and Sharp attached a series of buoys to the work line to slow the animal down and prevent it from diving, then sidled up to the whale. Over the next hour they methodically removed the line from the animal, first from the animal’s back and the tail, and finally from its flipper.
The line wrapped around the whale’s flipper presented more of a challenge because the rope had cut through to the bones of its flipper and the injuries were severe. For that operation, Landry and Sharp donned snorkeling masks and peered overboard so they could see where they would make cuts around the flipper on the whale’s underside.
After an hour of working away at the lines, Landry and Sharp made just the right cuts so that when the animal swam forward, the gear came away. The animal swam off and about eight minutes later it resurfaced over a half mile away.
The team from PCCS removed hundreds of feet of different types of ropes and buoys from the animal, and estimates that the gear had been attached to the humpback for some time and would have likely lead to death.
“It was an incredible relief to remove all of that gear,” said Landry. “Not only was the operation finished without any human injury, but also it seemed apparent that within hours or days that whale would start to feel much better without the constant rubbing of rope in open wounds.”
According to the PCCS humpback whale program, the humpback whale saved on Monday is approximately 14 months old and was last seen in September 2008 as a calf alongside its mother “Ravine.” Ironically, Ravine was also involved in a serious entanglement in 2003.
“I have to admit that the operation took on a whole new light when the humpback whale studies program informed us that the whale was the offspring of Ravine,” said Landry. “We disentangled Ravine in 2003. Her entanglement was nasty and the disentanglement was especially hard-won. The whale we disentangled on Monday was Ravine’s first documented calf after her disentanglement.”
Special thanks go to the researchers on board the Tioga, led by WHOI biologist Mark Baumgartner, who were working in the area studying the feeding behavior of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale and dropped their own work to safe this animal. Their disappointment, as they had high hopes of finding and studying right whales that day, gave way to the excitement of knowing they did the right thing and helped. “If they hadn’t stood by it we never would have re-found it.” said Landry.
Of the approximately 900 whales in the Gulf of Maine humpback whale population, more than half have experienced an entanglement in their lifetime and 8-25 percent acquire new entanglement scars annually. Less than 10 percent of humpback whale entanglements are actually witnessed and reported.
This year, five unique cases of humpback entanglements have been reported. Three have been successfully disentangled, the other two are still at large because the people who spotted them couldn’t stand by the whale until rescuers arrived. These two entangled whales have not been sighted since.
“Entangled animals tend to be very low-profile and in the vastness of the ocean, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack” said Landry.
To report an entanglement in Northeastern U.S. coastal waters, please call the PCCS Marine Animal Entanglement Hotline, 1-800-900-3622.
Copyright © 2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC