Freeing whale of rope took fortune and grit


POSTED: Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Luck and persistence helped federal and state officials free a young humpback whale entangled in hundreds of feet of plastic rope.

The delicate operation was detailed yesterday by representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Coast Guard and state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Of concern were the stricken youngster's docile but massive mother swimming nearby — along with her male companion, who at one point appeared aggravated, rapidly circling the rescue boat and spouting.

“;We had to watch that escort very carefully,”; said Ed Lyman, marine mammal response manager with NOAA's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, who coordinated the rescue effort.

The operation Sunday at Penguin Bank, a submerged shelf extending from western Molokai, required slowing down the 25-foot whale so he could be safely approached by boat.

At first, the officials recalled, they tried attaching floating buoys, a modified technique similar to barrels used on the great white shark in the movie “;Jaws.”;

But the yearling took three buoys down into the ocean as it dived, they said.

Then they tried a sea anchor, typically used to keep the bow of a boat pointed into oncoming seas in a storm. That slowed the whale down from roughly 5 mph to 2 mph — enough to try to remove the rope.

A large flying cutter was attached to the end of a sailboat mast to cut the tangled rope. At that time the yearling's mother was idle, but her escort appeared aggravated, rapidly circling the lifeboat and doing trumpet blows, the officials said.

Aboard the lifeboat were Lyman, along with David Schofield, marine mammal stranding response coordinator of the National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Regional Office, and David Nichols, acting sanctuary co-manager. All had to make sure the yearling's tail would not brush the bow of the boat as they disentangled the rope from the mammal.

;[Preview]    Rescue crews save young whale

Watch ]


About 350 feet of rope was removed, seven feet of which was wrapped between and around the whale's mouth.

The agencies had been tracking the whale's movement since last Tuesday after it was spotted by a sunrise whale tour off of Maui. Rough sea conditions prevented team members from responding sooner.

The yearling was tagged with a telemetry buoy that had a GPS and satellite transmitter attached, helping officials track its movement. Sunday's sea conditions were ideal for crew members to rescue the yearling humpback whale after it was spotted from a Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopter.

Twelve humpback whales have been rescued since 2003. Officials said whale rescues are not always successful.

“;This was a huge cooperative effort,”; said Schofield. “;We were lucky.”;

For the underwater video, click here.