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Entangled Humpback Whale Rescued
In Hawaiian Waters


whale rescue
Humpback Whale entangled in gear prior to removal. (Photo: National Marine Sanctuaries, Permit No 932-1489-08)
Federal and state officials, along with local volunteers, teamed up to free a humpback whale from a life-threatening entanglement yesterday.

Members of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service and Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), along with the community-based Whale Disentanglement Network unraveled lines dragging 25 feet from the whale's mouth and freed the humpback whale, which was located off the north side of the island of Lana‘i on Feb. 13. 

Click here to view video footage of the whale rescue. [QuickTime, 3.2MB]
The whale was entangled in 5/8” and 3/4” diameter lines coming from the left side of its mouth.  Two large red buoys and a smaller bullet buoy were part of the gear dragging from the whale, threatening the health of the animal.   

The whale was first spotted Feb. 9 off the Island of Hawai‘i by the Hawaiian Marine Mammal Consortium (HMMC), a whale research organization and a member of the Whale Disentanglement Network.  Since the entanglement was assessed as life threatening the network decided to attach a tracking buoy to the animal to allow the gathering of personnel and equipment to safely cut the whale free. 

whale rescue
Rescuers position to remove entagled gear. (Photo: National Marine Sanctuaries, Permit No 932-1489-08)
Network coordinators David Mattila and Ed Lyman, staff with the Humpback Whale sanctuary, worked with HMMC and DLNR to coordinate a rescue attempt of the animal.  Unfortunately, as teams got underway, VHF tracking indicated that the animal had moved north and offshore into the rough waters of the Alenuihaha Channel where network members were unable to work on the animal.  The animal stayed in rough waters throughout Saturday and then moved to calmer waters near Maui on Sunday where it was spotted by a whale watch boat.  The team from the sanctuary reassembled and responded, working under Permit No 932-1489-08 (as amended) issued by NOAA that allowed them to approach the whale.  (A permit to approach a whale is always required under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.

This is the first successful disentanglement in Hawai‘i this whale season and the first disentanglement that involved using a small VHF radio tracking buoy.  The buoy, which was attached to the animal, allowed rescuers to track the whale until it was safe enough to attempt a rescue effort.

whale rescue
Rescuers using a pole to remove gear. (Photo: National Marine Sanctuaries, Permit No 932-1489-08)
This event is the third confirmed report of an entangled humpback whale this season.  The first report of an entangled humpback was received Dec. 27, 2005. The report was of a whale five miles off Lihue, Kaua‘i. The animal was reported trailing very little gear, had no visible wounds, and looked healthy. The entanglement was assessed as not life threatening, and no immediate action was taken.  The second report was received Jan. 29. This time of a humpback with gear tightly wrapped and embedded around the base of its tail.  The animal was also sighted off the island of Hawaii by the HMMC.  This entanglement was assessed as life threatening, and an exhaustive effort was made to relocate the animal the next day to attempt to cut the animal free.  Unfortunately, the animal has not been re-sighted yet.

Over the past couple of years, the number of confirmed reports of entangled whales in Hawaiian waters has increased.  Large whales like the humpback, are typically able to rip the gear off the ocean floor and swim off with it.  In fact, many of the whales reported entangled in Hawaiian waters probably brought the entanglement with them from higher latitude feeding grounds.  While these large animals are not typically at risk from drowning or immediate death, they are at increased risk of starvation, infection, physical trauma from the gear, and ship strikes as a result of the entanglement. 

For those reporting possible entanglements, it should be noted that sometimes the behavior of the animals or the animal’s appearance may be mistaken for an entanglement. Do not use the whale’s behavior alone as an indication of entanglement. Some examples of false reports are:

  • Mother and calf humpbacks logging (a typical behavior of laying motionless at the surface) in shallow water and close to shore.  They are just resting. 
  • Surface active whales (breaching or part of a group of male humpbacks chasing after a female).  With such behaviors there is typically a great deal of white water associated with throwing all or part of the body out of the water.
  • Humpbacks with white pectoral fins.  The pectoral fins are 15 feet long or about 1/3 the length of the body.  Only 25 percent of Hawaii’s humpbacks have white fins and those that have them may be mistaken for gear laying next to the animal. In many cases the white fins may appear light green underwater and can be mistaken for gillnet.

If you believe you have seen an entangled whale or sea turtle, please call the NOAA Fisheries Hotline at (888) 256-9840 as soon as possible.  A member of the rescue team will get back to you right away.  What ever you do, please do not get in the water and/ or attempt to cut the animal free on your own. 

The process of cutting a large, free-swimming whale free is extremely dangerous.  While divers recently off California’s Farallon Islands successfully disentangled a humpback whale, many would be rescuers that have jumped into the water to free an animal have either died or been critically injured. 

The Hawaiian Island Disentanglement Network has experienced and trained personnel that are authorized to safely cut large whales free of gear and marine debris using specially designed tools and techniques.  The network in Hawai‘i is a partnership of federal, state and local members that also includes staff from NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office and the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. 

The disentanglement network operates in other parts of the United States and its regional teams have successfully freed more than 50 large whales over the years along the east coast of the United States and Canada, the Caribbean, Alaska, and here in Hawai‘i without a single serious injury. Last year the Network’s Disentanglement team successfully freed a humpback whale off western Maui that was entangled in marine debris. 

While cutting an animal free of a life threatening entanglement may save the animal, it is not the long-term answer to the problem.  Preventing entanglements is actually the ultimate solution, and cutting whales free and documenting entanglements in the meantime provides valuable information to help us prevent entanglements in the future.

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