April 17th, 2017 (Laylan Connelly). The net wrapped around and hanging off the gray whale’s tail was so long, it had starfish entangled within its web – meaning at some point, the netting had been dragging on the ocean floor.
Rescuers were able to get close enough to cut off most of the 100-foot-long gill net just before the sun set Saturday – but another sighting in Newport Beach the following day showed some line still wrapped on the fluke, intertwined with kelp, with the whale traveling slower than normal and still in need of help. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rescue team was on alert Monday and asking boaters and whale watching charters to keep an eye out for the distressed whale.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rescue team was on alert Monday and asking boaters and whale watching charters to keep an eye out for the distressed whale, thought to be heading past Long Beach and the Palos Verdes Peninsula as it slowly chugs up to Alaska.
Naturalist Mark Tyson was aboard Capt. Dave’s Dolphin Safari Saturday when he saw the whale’s head pop up near the San Clemente Pier – but when it went back down, it did something odd.
“It went backward into the water,” he said. “When we got closer, we could tell its tail was messed up. At first, it looked like it was dragging kelp.”
Then a passenger noticed the blue line dragging behind it. Tyson immediately contacted the NOAA entanglement response team, which included staff from Laguna Beach’s Pacific Marine Mammal Center. The team, with help from Capt. Dave’s captains locating the whale, was able to reach it a few hours later as it tucked into a cove near Dana Point Harbor.
Justin Viezbicke, NOAA Fisheries’ California Stranding Network Coordinator, was able to get close enough to the whale on a small inflatable boat, using a hook to pull up the net and a knife to cut through it.
“We got a significant amount of gear off of the animal. But the reality is, because of the nature of the entanglement, it’s not an easy, complete removal,” he said. “It’s embedded into the tail fluke. Complete removal will be very difficult, if not impossible.”
Viezbicke said though parts of the net remained on the whale’s tail, the rescue effort is considered a success.
“Before, the whale had no chance, now, it at least has a shot,” he said.
On Sunday, Newport Coastal Adventure captain Ryan Lawler saw a whale off West Newport that looked like it was acting strange. He called to another of his boats, where photographer Mark Girardeau could fly his drone above to see if it was in trouble.
It turned out to be the same whale as the one rescued Saturday. Girardeau could see the entanglement – with kelp wrapped around the net – still inhibiting the whale’s movement. He contacted NOAA to report the whale’s location and behavior.
“It was swimming at 1.5 knots, the normal speed is 5 knots,” he said. “It has to go all the way to Alaska – that’s pretty slow.”
Girardeau said it’s the fourth entangled whale he’s encountered in the past two years, a too-common sight considering he only gets on the boats during weekends.
“It’s kind of sad seeing that. Rather than have a whale get old and get tired from being old, they are getting tired from being tangled from nets from humans,” he said.
Viezbicke said there have been six reports of gray whale entanglements this year – more than in recent years, including two last year. Last year, however, was a record year for overall entanglements along the West Coast.
Viezbicke said the helpful eyes of boat captains and passengers is making a difference as the rescue team grapples with the increase in whale entanglements.
“It was definitely a team effort,” he said. “We had a number of whale watching groups communicating to keep an eye on the whale and help out,” he said.
If you see the whale, do not approach it. Stay with it and take photos if possible, note the location and traveling direction and its behavior and contact the NOAA Entangled Whale hotline at 877-SOS-WHALE ; or hail the U.S. Coast Guard on CH 16.