Men in skiff free whale

Two boaters cut off crab pot lines ensnarling humpback

Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2002

When Pat Volmer saw a humpback whale in trouble, he acted.

Volmer, caretaker at the Taku Glacier Lodge, was rounding Point Salisbury on his way up the Taku River on Saturday when he saw a whale spout in the distance. Drawing closer, he saw that the animal was tangled in the ropes from two crab pots, which were dragging behind it.

"It wasn't diving," Volmer said in an e-mail interview Tuesday. "It just kept surfacing every minute or so."

The whale was about three times the size of the skiff he was piloting, Volmer estimated. He drew closer to the nearest buoy - about 40 feet behind the whale - and waited to see if it would dive.

"It didn't, so I pulled up next to the buoy, grabbed it and cut off the line," Volmer wrote. "I figured if one end was free, it would eventually work the other end off."

The other buoy - about 20 feet behind the whale - was too close to the animal for Volmer to cut free by himself. Waiting for an opportunity to help, he followed the whale for a short distance before spotting a man camping with his two children on the shore below Point Bishop, just south of Gastineau Channel. Volmer pulled up and asked for help.

"At first he was a little hesitant, but when the whale went by us he called to his kids to get their life jackets and get in the boat," Volmer wrote. "We were going to rescue a whale."

Five minutes later, they caught up with the whale. The man grabbed the buoy, letting the whale tow them for a few seconds before he cut the rope and set the animal free.

"The whale spouted, made a whale noise and went on its way," Volmer wrote. "I don't know if it was the smartest or the right thing to do. It made sense at the time."

The whale "kind of" seemed to understand their intention to help, Volmer said in a conversation Tuesday night. The whale made the same sort of song-like noise after each buoy was cut free, he added.

Seeing whales entangled in crab pot lines is a fairly rare occurrence in Alaska, said Ron Antaya, a special agent for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Enforcement Division.

However, NOAA has a team ready to respond when reports of trapped whales come in. The agency's general policy is to ask the public not to interfere, Antaya said.

"Many times it becomes a pretty involved operation to safely free an entangled whale," he said. "It's very dangerous for the whale and very dangerous for anybody who's involved in that. A mature humpback whale can be 40 feet and 40 tons. It's a pretty powerful animal, and it wouldn't take much for that animal to hurt someone inadvertently when they were trying to help them."

Empire editor Ed Schoenfeld contributed to this article.

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