COURTESY HAWAIIAN ISLANDS HUMPBACK WHALE NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY / NOAA
Rescue crews off Maui worked to disentangle a whale from ropes Sunday as another one swam past.
Rescuers free whale from ropes it dragged for 5 weeks
Rescuers in Hawaii have cut a female humpback whale free from ropes it had been carrying since at least late January -- their second success of the year.
More than 100 pounds of 1-inch-diameter line was wrapped around the whale's tail and cutting into its flesh, said David Mattila, science and rescue coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, as he described the Sunday rescue yesterday.
"There had been a good deal of deterioration compared to five weeks ago," when the entangled whale was first spotted Jan. 29 off the Big Island, he said. The 40-foot whale was underweight for its size.
It wasn't until Sunday off Lanai that anyone had seen the whale again, Mattila said.
Researchers with the University of Hawaii's Dolphin Institute spotted the whale off the Leeward side of West Maui and stayed with it until the sanctuary's response vessels arrived about 1 p.m. Sunday, Mattila said.
Mattila and Ed Lyman, the sanctuary's rescue manager, "kegged" the whale -- attaching large polyball buoys to the trailing line -- to slow it down, just as whalers of old did with empty wooden kegs.
"She dragged us around close to three hours," until Lyman and Mattila were able to get close enough to safely cut the debris off the whale with specially designed long-handled knives, Mattila said.
They identified the whale as female because as they were working with it, four large whales gathered around and engaged in typical male "competitor behavior," Mattila said.
"At one point they got very close to her, and we were worried we could entangle three whales instead of free one," Mattila said.
But eventually the other whales went away and the entangled whale was freed. The debris it was pulling will be studied for clues to where it came from, Mattila said. "It may have been carrying (the rope) since it was up north somewhere," he said.
"It's a serious problem," Mattila said. "It's estimated that 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are entangled in marine debris worldwide each year."
Mattila and Lyman are among just eight people in the country authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to disentangle whales from fishing lines and other debris. They are part of the Hawaiian Islands Whale Disentanglement Network, a cooperative group that includes federal and state wildlife officials.
They also helped free a 40-foot humpback whale off Lanai on Feb. 12. The whale had been dragging marine debris around for at least a few days before the rescuers freed it of rope and bright orange inflatable buoys.