GARY T. KUBOTA / GKUBOTA@STARBULLETIN.COM
David Mattila displays tools that he and his associate Ed Lyman at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary developed to help them free whales entangled in fishing lines and other debris. Mattila holds a "flying knife" attached to an aluminum pole. The knife is hooked onto a fishing line as rescuers approach a whale, allowing them to cut the line from a safe distance.
Tools keep whale rescue safe
A Hawaii team has developed techniques to free a trapped animal from a safe distance
MAALAEA, Maui » Freeing a whale entangled in fishing lines and nets is a dangerous business, but David Mattila and Ed Lyman have developed tools to make it safer. Mattila and Lyman are among some eight people in the United States authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries to disentangle whales from fishing lines and other debris.
Mattila said neither he nor Lyman has been injured in scores of rescues, and they have learned how to help the whales while maintaining a safe distance.
People have been hurt or killed entering the water to try to help whales, said Mattila, the science and rescue coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Mattila and Lyman, the sanctuary's rescue manager, have developed customized tools that allow them to stay out of the water and a safe distance from a whale -- tools that are now used by whale rescue teams on boats along the East and West coasts, Hawaii and Australia.
The implements include a "flying knife" attached to an aluminum pole that can be extended from a boat to hook onto fishing lines entangling a whale.
The pole is pulled away, leaving the flying knife with a rope attached to the handle.
Riding on the boat, rescuers pull on the rope to apply pressure to the flying knife to cut the line.
There's also a "flying grabber" that hooks onto the fishing lines entangling a whale.
Using the flying grabber, Mattila and Lyman attach buoys and other materials to slow the animal enough to allow them to examine the problem and disentangle the fishing lines.
Mattila said he and Lyman have been successful so far in freeing humpback whales in Hawaii, once they find them.
The team disentangled one this year and another last year.
He said their success rate is lower with right whales, which are stronger and generally don't stop fighting.
Mattila and Lyman are also working on developing fishing gear that would be safe for whales and for fishermen.
Mattila said rescuers' main problem is locating an impaired whale.
Quite often, vessels see a whale with fishing lines and debris attached to it, but are unable to continue tracking it until the rescue team arrives, he said.
The response time is critical, and sometimes rescue teams fly by airplane and helicopter within hours of receiving a report of a whale in trouble.
"It's really not as easy as some people think," he said.
Mattila said he and Lyman have been doing ocean rescue of whales since 1984, when he was a scientist working with humpbacks in New England.
He and other researchers were trying to help a young whale entangled in gill nets.
"One of the men in the lab was a fisherman. He said, 'Why don't you just attach floats and lines and ride it out?' We tried it, and sure enough the whale stopped. We were able to get the lines off the whale," he said.
Mattila said the young whale had lines around its tail and mouth and would have died without help.
He discounted news reports of a whale that reportedly swam back to thank people after being disentangled.
He said a veterinarian who was there said the whale was simply swimming in circles to regain its coordination before it swam off.
"They're wild animals," he said.