News and Events Header Graphic



        

NOAA logo

Whale Rescue
by Walter Bonora
National Marine Sanctuaries

What started out as a routine day of fishing for a well-intentioned New Zealand man quickly turned to tragedy when he attempted to save an entangled humpback whale off New Zealand’s coast. As reported in a June 2003 issue of the New Zealand Herald, Tom Smith arrived on the scene after picking up reports from local fishermen of a whale in trouble. He leapt into the water and tried to cut the roped whale free. Inadvertently, the whale’s fluke came down on Smith, killing him.

For Ed Lyman, a whale rescue expert with Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary who gives workshops on the subject, the New Zealand tragedy is precisely what he wants people to avoid. “Smith’s enthusiasm to do something good ended badly,” Lyman says.

The first thing Lyman and other marine mammal rescue specialists tell people is don’t get into the water. “The desire for untrained people to act on their own can often have dangerous results,” he says. “Would-be rescuers can injure themselves and also injure a whale by using improper equipment or techniques.”

A hooked knife - sharp on the inside, but dull on the outside  is attached to the entangling gear just behind the humpback's left pectoral flipper.
A hooked knife - sharp on the inside, but dull on the outside - is attached to the entangling gear just behind the humpback's left pectoral flipper. The whale was entangled in fishing gear set off Kodiak, Alaska, before being cut free in Hawaii's Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary by the use of special tools like these. Photo by Ed Lyman. HIHWNMS under authority of MMHSRP permit # 932-1489.
Dr. Terri Rowles, director of NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, the federal agency that authorizes and oversees all marine mammal rescues in the U.S., concurs with Lyman. “For both the animals’ welfare, as well as human safety, it is important that only specially permitted and trained people working under the authority of the NOAA stranding and response program cut gear and marine debris from a whale.”

Rowles emphasized that “the public should never attempt to disentangle a marine mammal, whether from a vessel or in the water, because the activity is inherently dangerous to both the animals and the people trying to save them.”

Marine mammals getting caught in fishing gear and debris is a growing problem for state and federal agencies, along with private groups dedicated to protecting these animals. Each year, thousands of whales and dolphins die from the gear, indicating that fisheries by-catch is a significant human-related cause of cetacean mortality.

David Mattila, the research and rescue coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale sanctuary, has spent the last 25 years cutting large whales free. He stressed the importance of leaving the rescue work to the specialists by highlighting some of the hi-tech equipment available to them.

View of an entangled humpback whale within the boundaries of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
View of an entangled humpback whale within the boundaries of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The Sanctuaries rescue team was able to cut the whale free of all gear. Credit HIHWNMS under the authority of MMHSRP permit # 932-1489.
“One of the pieces of equipment that we use to help us free these animals is transmitters,” Mattila says. “Attaching transmitters to the gear ensnaring the whale allows the rescue team the ability to track the animal until proper resources and trained personnel have been assembled, and conditions are favorable to safely cut the whale free.”

In Alaska, the sanctuary program and NOAA Fisheries’ local Protected Resources Division tagged a humpback entangled in gillnet. The transmitter allowed the team to work on the animal on two different occasions, and free it nine days later. This was the first time transmitters were used to aid in whale disentanglement efforts in Alaska.

Extensive effort has also gone into developing and testing unique and specialized cutting tools that can help remove the gear safely and without causing additional harm to the whales.

Anyone who sees an entangled whale or other marine mammal should call the local NOAA Fisheries Regional Office, Marine Mammal Stranding Network, or the U.S. Coast Guard.

For more information, visit www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health

leaving site indicates a link leaves the site. Please view our Link Disclaimer for more information.
Revised January 04, 2007 by Sanctuaries Web Team | Contact Us | Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service
National Ocean Service | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | Privacy Policy | For Employees | User Survey
http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/news/features/0107_whalerescue.html