Mariners help whales out of tangles

Posted: Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Capt. Greg Brown of the Weather Permitting went to NOAA's whale disentanglement training last year, but this 30-foot humpback calf swathed in line was the first real tangled whale he'd tried to help.

Courtesy Of National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration
Courtesy Of National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration

The calf evidently wasn't too pleased about the would-be rescuers grabbing at it, and gave them a taste of what can make these rescues harrowing. It did what's called a peduncle slap, forcefully throwing down its tail onto the water near the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration boat.

"That is the strongest muscle in the animal kingdom," Brown said. "It really was pretty spectacular."

The calf is one of two Southeast Alaska whales spotted this month tangled in fishing gear, both of whom may have rescued themselves.

It's a relief when whales disentangle themselves, because rescuing these large, powerful animals can be quite dangerous, said whale entanglement expert Ed Lyman.

"We try to save some of them. But our goal is not to go out there and cut everyone free," he said. "That would be foolish."

The calf, which was discovered on the backside of Douglas Island two weeks ago, and a subadult discovered last week in Taiya Inlet south of Skagway are the third and fourth entangled whales reported this year in the area. About six to 10 a year are typically reported in Southeast Alaska, said Lyman, who works for the NOAA's Fisheries Service.

Entanglement can be trouble for marine animals. Dolphins or small whales may drown in fishing gear or other marine trash. Large whales generally don't drown but may starve if the gear keeps them from feeding. Bev Agler, a Juneau fisheries biologist who spent years studying whale photos, described one whale, entangled when she was lactating, who had become so emaciated her backbone was visible.

Only if Lyman thinks the whale's life is at stake and responders can go in safely will he attempt a rescue using specialized techniques and tools.

First, responders try to hook the gear that's attached to the whale. Then they add more fishing gear to keep the whale from diving, an old whaling technique.

"Just like in Moby Dick," Lyman said.

It's called kegging. Whalers used to attach kegs or barrels to the animals; the whale couldn't dive and would tire itself out trying to shake them off.

The first buoy has a transmitter to track the whale, and the next ones are added to tire it out. Once the whale is buoyed, responders cut the gear with specially designed hooked blades on long poles. No one holds the blades - they too are buoyed, and the whale's ups and downs cause them to cut the line. It can take all day, especially on thick rope.

The technique doesn't work on every whale. And sometimes it is better to wait, anyway.

"A lot of them, they get into gear, but they get out," Lyman said.

One Glacier Bay whale study found that about half the whales spotted had scars from recent entanglements - meaning they had escaped.

In last week's incident, the entanglement report came during a day of rough weather in Taiya Inlet, no day to go rescuing whales. They had intelligence from a labeled crab-pot buoy: A call to the phone number revealed the fisherman had recently tended the pot. So the tangle was new, and perhaps the whale could shake it off on its own.

The buoy was spotted from the air and, once the seas calmed, retrieved along with more than 240 feet of line.

In the case of the entangled calf, Lyman said, responders tried intervening.

First they tried to grapple the calf. But they could find nothing to grab.

"It would have been very difficult for us to work on that whale, and there's a good possibility it would make things worse," he said.

Instead, they watched for about an hour and a half. It seemed the calf could nurse. It could move just fine, at about 3 knots. And crucially, it appeared to have already thrown some gear.

A local tour boat for Dolphin Jet Boat Tours first spotted the whale, and two other tour boat skippers helped by keeping track of the calf before Lyman could get there on a NOAA boat.

The tangled whale drama made for extra-exciting tourism, according to Larry Dupler, captain of Orca Enterprises' Orca Odysea, which kept an eye on the calf.

"We had some other things we wanted to see," he said, "but they wanted to stay there and make sure (NOAA) could take care of that baby."

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or

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