Save the Whales! Really!

Stage4_FQuirarte2014_0514_WET_fr0147_MMHRSPWhen OCR Program Director Kathi Koontz came on board with our team earlier this year she had one request:  that we give her some flexibility to participate in saving whales.  While this is part of OCR’s mission, Kathi was referring to actually going out on boats with whale disentanglement teams – as she is one of the lead west coast first responders to whale entanglements.

Last week, WET (the Whale (dis)Entanglement Team) had a fabulous success, which Kathi conveys in her own words:

I love the sound of the blow when a whale breaks the surface.  On April 27, 2014, a whale-watching boat was in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary observing whales when one of the naturalists noticed a whale moving slowly and buoys following the whale where it went.  She knew the whale was entangled and called the WET hotline.  Through activation of the hotline, notification went to Pieter Folkens, the lead for WET.

I was cleaning my house when I received the phone call from Pieter. I immediately stopped what I was doing to assemble a team for the response, gather my gear, and hit the road. WET is permitted to respond under NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.  It is illegal to attempt a disentanglement on marine mammals unless you have authorization from NOAA.  Our team of trained volunteers are on call 24/7 for responses primarily in northern and central California.  Additional trained responders cover the entire coastline.

As it was late in the day when we arrived onsite with the whale, we attached a telemetry buoy to the line trailing behind the whale and took video with a GoPro to allow us to assess the entanglement.  A plan was made to respond the next day – remove the trap, untwist the lines, and attempt disentanglement.  The telemetry buoy was critical to the success of our efforts as it allowed us to keep track of the whale’s position for what turned out to be an extended operation.

Green buoy is the telemetry buoy with the satellite and VHF tags.  The other 2 buoys are floats from the entangling line.

Green buoy is the telemetry buoy with the satellite and VHF tags. The other 2 buoys are floats from the entangling line.

Tail stock with entangling line as seen from the GoPro footage.

Tail stock with entangling line as seen from the GoPro footage.

The next day, April 28th, we successfully removed the crab pot and 250 feet of line from the whale!  This removed the most serious life-threatening part of the entanglement.  However, three wraps of line were still deeply embedded around the tail stock and we were suspended from further efforts due to high seas and strong winds.


Ryan Berger, myself, and Jim (Homer) Holm with the crab pot.

Because the whale and weather did not stay still, the following days involved patience (a common theme in disentanglement), planning, tweaking plans, and wishing that the telemetry buoy would pull the remaining line off the whale.  We continuously monitored the marine forecast and whale’s location to inform us of a potential response date.  We didn’t want to rush the response and endanger either ourselves or the whale in bad weather.  We could see where the whale was via the telemetry.  So we waited, and my car was loaded, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

The next news we heard was from Marine Life Studies’ research team.  They were out in Monterey Bay on May 1st and reported a second entangled whale.  Two WET teams searched for two days for this entangled whale while our original, entangled whale moved further out of responding distance (no put-ins near the whale’s location).  Unfortunately, this second whale has not been seen since.  This is the hardest part of whale disentanglement – re-sighting the whale.  While these whales are getting caught in fishing gear, they are not intentionally being caught. It’s a co-occurrence issue.  The whales and the fishing gear are in the same place.

We continued to make plans for the next response to the first whale.  Our motto:  always flexible.  We watched the whale move south towards Point Arguello.  On May 6th we received a notice from the Marine Mammal Center that an entangled whale was reported off of Pismo Beach.  The first thought was this could be our whale, but the telemetry put our first whale in a different location.  This was yet another entangled whale, our third report in ten days.  On average, California gets eight reports per year.  Sadly, for every one report, there are ten more entanglements not reported, and 20-80% of studied populations are scarred from entanglements – indicating some whales can throw the gear.  As with the second entangled whale, this third whale was not re-sighted either.

After one practice run to Santa Barbara on May 8th (we drove to Santa Barbara in preparation for a response to the first whale, but the weather did not allow us to leave the dock), we were ready to respond to the entangled whale on May 14th.  The logistical elements aligned – we found the whale via the telemetry, the right team was in place, and the conditions were perfect.  We could finally finish the disentanglement.

Myself and two team members (Ryan and Dave) attached several buoys to the trailing line on the whale to slow it down and keep it near the surface.  For safety, we always work in small boats, and never get in the water.  The condition of the tail stock had degraded over the few weeks.  The line was cutting deeply (several inches) into the whale.

Another small boat with additional team members assessed the wound and determined the best approach to remove the entangling line was to unwrap the lines as much as possible to minimize, or eliminate the need to cut the line on the whale.  We used a two boat approach – the first time this has been done – to unwrap the lines.  As we worked, we noticed that the line had become knotted upon itself around the tail stock at the fluke insertion.  One cut with a “whale knife” at the end of a pole removed the knot (without touching the whale), and within several minutes the line with the telemetry buoy came off the whale.  We then used a pole to nudge the final line off.

Close up of the cut.

Close up of the cut.

In the end, the whale was monitored with telemetry for eighteen days.  It traveled more than 610 nm of trackline distance and approximately 220 nm southward along the coast.  (It is believed that this whale acquired the entanglement somewhere north of San Francisco and south of Crescent City).  And I traveled about 900 miles in my car (780 nm if the highway was the ocean).

I’m thrilled that the whale is free of its entanglement, and proud to be part of a great team effort!  However, the greatest pride for me is that the data we collected can be used for analysis into mitigating the larger issue of entanglement, and provide feedback to ocean users so we can all be better stewards of the ocean.

Trackline of the whale from when the telemetry was placed on the whale until it was removed from the whale.

Trackline of the whale from when the telemetry was placed on the whale until it was removed from the whale.

Photo 4:  Trackline of the whale from when the telemetry was placed on the whale until it was removed from the whale.

I want to thank Michael and Gwynn at Ocean Conservation Research (OCR) for allowing me to respond to this whale.  Also, thank you to everyone on the WET team, especially, Pieter Folkens, Ryan Berger, Peggy Stap, Ed Lyman, Justin Viezbicke, Jim (Homer) Holm, Dave Beezer, John (JD) Douglas, and Keith Yip.

If you see an entangled whale, please call 1-877-SOS-WHALE or hail the USCG on channel 16.  Thank you!