Editor’s Note: Help young readers learn more about entangled marine mammals on Neptune 911’s offspring for kids: Entanglement. A Big Word.
From the Orange County Register earlier this year:
Most likely, the gray whale didn’t understand.
It probably didn’t understand why heavy plastic rope was tangled in its mouth and around its left pectoral flipper. And it probably didn’t understand that the people on the boat – the humans who were like water skiers towed by a 40-foot creature roughly 10 times bigger than a circus elephant – were only trying to help.
We can’t be sure what the whale did or didn’t understand.
What we can be sure of is that the people from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach knew what they were doing. The PMMC is the only organization in Orange County licensed to disentangle whales. They are highly trained not to hurt the whale or themselves – though, of course, there’s no guarantee that the whale won’t hurt them.
What you have in the course of rescuing a whale is a classic failure to communicate, something that makes the process extremely dangerous.
This spring, the team has had an unusual amount of practice.
The adult whale entangled in rope was spotted at lunchtime April 17 between Newport and Laguna Beach. The Harbor Patrol and others followed it to Dana Point until the PMMC disentanglement crew arrived.
Their encounter with the whale would end at dark, still unfinished.
To disentangle a whale you have to get up close, explains Dean Gomersall, who leads the PMMC rescue team. This is why it is dangerous.
Their first objective was to hook onto the entanglement with a 100-foot control line attached to a buoy. This slows the whale and makes it easier to track.
It was hide and seek of leviathan proportions.
“For 45 minutes we followed that whale, losing it and finding it,” recalls Dana Friedman, a veteran volunteer on the rescue team.
The agitated whale kept diving.
“After it surfaced, a quarter mile away, we only had 30 seconds … to race over to where it was going to surface again and then throw the grapple line.”
Attaching the hook is like threading a needle while bouncing on a trampoline.
The rescuers practice; a lot. In 90 minutes they attached three lines.
Then the rescuers turned off their engine and lifted it out of water so it couldn’t cut the whale while they drifted close enough to cut the lines.
That’s when water skiing comes in. The whale was towing the rescue boat at 3 to 5 knots when, suddenly, the whale stopped. The boat did not, gliding over the whale — which returned the bump.
“We got a jolt,” says Gomersall. “It’s got to be scary for the whale.”
How about scary for the rescuers?
“The tail is the danger zone,” he admits. “A gray whale can move its flukes quickly and slice a boat right in half.”
The whale tried to strike them at least once.
The team uses an expandable pole to attach a knife onto the entanglement. Once they hook the knife to the entanglement, they detach the pole leaving the knife on a line with a buoy at the other end.
The tension of the buoy pulls when the whale dives, and the tension forces the knife cut the rope around it.
When they stopped, at dark, they were 10 miles offshore and had cut away more than 120 feet of line.
Was the whale slowing down?
“It was hard to leave,” Friedman admits. “We were fearful nobody would find the whale again.”
The next morning, they couldn’t.
California’s coastal waters are a transportation corridor for gray whales migrating from Alaska to Mexico for the winter and heading north for the summer.
More than 19,000 gray whales, many mothers and calves, have been commuting north this season. They swim as close as three miles off the coast.
The National Marine Fisheries Service says about 10 sightings per year along Washington, Oregon and California involve rescuing a whale from fishing gear or mooring lines. This year Southern California alone has had three.
The number indicates growing public awareness, says Monica Deangelis, a marine mammal biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. More people are reporting what they see. The service investigates incidents to work toward preventing them.
This spring’s first rescue, in March, was a smaller gray whale entangled in gill netting – a latticed plastic curtain, finer than a six-pack ring, which hangs in the water to trap fish. They’re banned off California coasts.
The whale was dragging over 100 feet of gill net, with dead sharks and a decomposing sea lion inside. It took seven hours to free the whale, which later died.
The second rescue, also in March, was a whale wrapped in fishing line. Rescuers, including Gomersall, followed it north from Orange County. The line was wrapped so tightly there was only one spot with enough slack to cut. They hit the sweet spot.
“We knew immediately this was a success,” recalls Peter Wallerstein of Marine Animal Rescue in El Segundo. “We were elated.”
Twenty-five years ago, he would just jump in the water to rescue whales caught in gill nets. Today he says tools and training have improved.
Nevertheless, disentangling whales is strictly “don’t try this at home.”
“Physically, they can be intimidating,” Gomersall emphasizes. “It’s extremely dangerous to get near them.”
Still, it has to be exciting. Helping a whale must feel like an act of friendship – and isn’t that a form of communication?
Gomersall once helped hold a baby whale that was beached.
“Looking into those eyes staring at you was kind of neat… Their eyes seem to be very thoughtful.”
We don’t know what whales know, but the team was jubilant recently to learn the fate of the whale they tried to rescue in April.
It was spotted May 3 near San Francisco, still towing its buoys. This time, rescuers cut all the ropes. They say the whale took a lap around the boat before it sped off.
Could have meant thank you.