Young humpback whale cut free of entangled cable off Maui

Photo courtesy NOAA

Marine wildlife officials came across an unusual find this weekend off Maui. A young humpback whale was entangled in heavy-gauge electrical cable, which was deeply embedded in its mouth.

It took crews two days to cut the whale free.

A NOAA member attempts to safely remove a large electrical cable from the mouth of a subadult humpback whale while off Maui March 11, 2017. The Coast Guard assisted responders from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Maui Ocean Safety, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission and NOAA’s West Maui response team by providing an additional platform work from and enforcing a safety zone in the area. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Lester)

The whale was first reported seen Saturday off the Pali lookout. It was determined that the whale was entangled in gear exiting both sides of the mouth and heading straight down to the ocean floor. Initial efforts to cut the gear were unsuccessful.

On Sunday, the animal was re-sighted in the same vicinity but headed south before letting the trailing gear settle on the ocean floor in about 60 feet of water off Kamaole Beach I.

David Schofield of NOAA said the whale didn’t swallow the cable, but it “was actually looped through the mouth. … the line was coming through the mandible and out the other side.

“We know that these whales lunge feed, so they come out of the water and they open their mouth real wide, and it could be that as it was coming up, there was this debris in the water, and it just opened its mouth in the unfortunate perfect way, to be able to get this cable to kind of act like a piece of dental floss.”

The response team used cable cutters to cut both cables leading to the whale’s mouth. It is estimated that around 500 feet of cable was removed from the animal with little gear remaining. The 70 feet of cable had already embedded itself too deeply at the back of the whale’s mouth to pull out.

The source of the gear, which is a PVC-insulated electrical-type cable, is still unknown.

Although the animal is slightly emaciated and has gear embedded at the back of the mouth, its overall present condition is good. With the removal of the gear, the chances of its survival have been greatly improved.

Schofield says this was the third entangled whale of the season. The other two were in Kauai and Hawaii Island waters.

Mariners are asked to keep a sharp lookout for this and other whales in distress, but not to approach closely or attempt to assist them. Only trained and well-equipped responders that are authorized under NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program are permitted to assist whales and other marine mammals.

If you sight any marine mammal in distress, maintain 100 yards distance and call the NOAA 24-hour hotline at 1-888 256-9840. If unable to call, radio the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH. 16 and they will relay the report.

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