Humpback whale successfully freed from entangled gear

A response team holds onto the line trailing behind the entangled whale with a companion whale nearby. (Photo: R. Finn - NOAA HIHWNMS MMHSRP permit # 932-1905)

A humpback whale spotted off Kona last week has been successfully freed of life-threatening gauge line.

But it wasn’t easy for the rescue team of 11 to catch the 45-feet long marine mammal out in the open ocean.

The entangled whale was first spotted on Feb. 13, heading up the Hamakua coastline 45 miles northwest of Hilo. Due to lack of standby support, the remote location and poor weather and sea conditions, officials could not immediately respond.

After multiple sightings from shoreside observers and tour vessels, members of the West Hawaii Marine Mammal Response Network located and tagged the whale and assessed his condition.

Experts learned the whale had at least five wraps of heavy gauge line around and partially embedded in its tail, with hundreds of feet of line trailing behind him. He appeared to be in moderate to fair health.

“What we ended up doing was using an old whaling technique, go back to 1800s, the heyday of whaling, they threw harpoons at whales, not to kill them but to slow them down and stop them,” said Ed Lyman, the marine mammal response manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

But instead of a harpoon, crews caught up to the marine using a different mechanic.

A pole equipped with a flying cutter knife makes one last cut to free the whale. (Photo: E. Lyman - NOAA HIHWNMS MMHSRP  permit # 932-1905)
A pole equipped with a flying cutter knife makes one last cut to free the whale. (Photo: E. Lyman – NOAA HIHWNMS MMHSRP
permit # 932-1905)

On Friday, Feb. 20, response teams tracked the whale and its companion to waters off Maui and launched off Maalaea Harbor. They used an inflatable boat to attach kegging buoys to the trailing line to slow the whale and keep it close to the surface, so members could cut the line wrapped around its flukes using a special knife attached to the end of a long pole.

“We had to make three approaches, 4 cuts was enough for last wrap to get gear off her,” said Lyman. “We went by the back and went really well, very slow, very methodical.”

They recovered the gear and, using a GoPro, determined the whale was free of all entangling gear, except for six feet of line embedded in the wound that, experts say, will likely be expelled over time.

The entire operation lasted eight hours, an effort coordinated by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, under authority of NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Regional Office and Office of Protected Resource.

Partners include: West Hawaii Marine Mammal Response Network, NOAA Corps, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, Hawaii Wildlife Fund and the West Maui Rapid Response Team.

Experts say approaching and attempting to disentangle a 40-ton whale is dangerous work. Because of these dangers to humans and animal alike, only experienced personnel with appropriate training and equipment are authorized to undertake such efforts.

If you come across an injured or entangled marine mammal, maintain the required safety distance of 100 yards and call the NOAA Marine Mammal Hotline at (888) 256-9840, or the U.S. Coast Guard on channel 16.

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