Humpback whale season was winding down in Icy Strait, Alaska when a phone call came in to report a whale near the Gustavus dock that was trailing two buoys, making unusual sounds and having a lot trouble swimming freely.
The National Parks Service boat Talus was called out to take a look at the situation and the crew found a humpback whale swimming in a tight clockwise circle that appeared to be intermittently anchored to the seafloor by what we later learned was a 300-pound crab pot with 450 feet of heavy duty line.
When park staff were able to assess the situation from a boat, they found a heavy fishing line winding from the whale’s mouth to its tail, ending in a glob of tangled lines at its tail.
The whale in distress was first spotted by pair of residents off the coast of Gustavus, Alaska. Surrounded by Glacier Bay National Park, Gustavus is bordered by the so-called “Icy Strait,” a popular ocean feeding ground for humpback whales in the spring, summer and fall.
But this particular whale wasn’t feeding. It was seen “trailing two buoys, making unusual sounds and having trouble moving freely,” according to an account of the rescue from the park service.
“In a sense, the whale was hogtied,” said Janet Neilson, a whale biologist with the NPS.
“It was curved into a C-shaped posture. The line was so tight that it couldn’t swim in a straight line,” she told NPR.
Neilson and her colleagues called the owners of the crabbing gear, who confirmed that a 300-pound crab pot had gone missing, along with 450 feet of heavy line. The whale had likely been entangled for about three days.
In general, humpback whales get entangled more often than people realize, Neilson said.
“Usually they can get out of the gear pretty quickly on their own, just by breaching and shaking loose with energetic behaviors.”
But the longer time passes, the more likely the whale is to panic, rolling and twisting until those entanglements become messier and increasingly life threatening.
In those cases when human intervention could save a whale’s life, one agency authorizes a rescue operation: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.
NOAA had a team of trained experts assembled by the following morning.
In a stroke of good luck, a few of the rescuers were able to spot the whale and its trailing buoys while flying in from Juneau, Alaska. The animal had managed to travel about a mile from where it was spotted the day before.
Neilson joined two other rescuers in a small boat while three others monitored and advised from a bigger research vessel nearby. A seventh person stood onshore to operate a drone camera, providing a bird’s eye view of the coiled whale. The team analyzed those images with the help of experts as far away as Hawaii.
The sea was calm and the sky sunny, but the forecast for the coming days contained gale-force winds, adding another layer of pressure to the puzzle.
At first, the whale tried to evade the rescuers, mustering its energy to shimmy away from the approaching boat.
But with the crew’s persistence, the whale calmed and acquiesced, allowing the team to start chipping away at the lines with long-handled cutting equipment, freeing the animal bit-by-bit as it surfaced for 30 second chunks in roughly nine minute intervals.
Some seven hours later, with daylight fading, the crew cut the last line — a rope wrapped around the whale’s tail.
The rescuers cheered, Neilson said, but it wasn’t exactly the dramatic moment you might imagine.
“On social media, there’s stories of whales acknowledging [disentangle crews] in some way or breaching as a way of saying thanks, but that’s not exactly what happens,” she said.
The victory didn’t sink in until the whale disappeared from the crew’s sight.
“That meant the whale was free and probably wanted nothing more to do with us,” she said. “It just bolted.”
The crab pot, on the other hand, fell to the seafloor. It hasn’t been recovered, NOAA reported.
Sources: NPR, National Park Service.