Rescuers save humpback whale tangled in fishing gear

A humpback whale tangled up in fishing gear was given a second chance at life thanks to a rescue team from SeaWorld and other responders who joined the effort.

The whale was first spotted near the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary on April 27. It was moving slowly south and trailing fishing gear and a buoy behind it.

"Because this animal was dragging this gear through the water, it was unable to swim and feed appropriately," said Keith Yip, SeaWorld San Diego's curator of mammals and the head of the park's rescue team. "If we had not come to this animal's aid, it certainly would have perished."

Whale experts tagged the animal, took photos and began working on a strategy to free it from the gear. On April 28, they were able to remove a crab pot and more than 300 feet of fishing gear before being forced to return to port because of high winds and seas.

Bad weather kept responders from making additional attempts until several days later. By May 10, the whale had moved into the Santa Barbara Channel.

"The remnants of the fishing gear were wrapped tightly around its peduncle, which is just forward of the tail flukes," said Yip. "As the whale grew, the gear would have ultimately severed the animal's tail."

Rescuers finally got a break in the weather on May 14. The whale had traveled more than 600 nautical miles by then and responders caught up to it about five miles off Goleta Point.

The team used a specially designed whale rescue knife to cut a knot in the fishing gear. Once the knot was cut, they were able to unwrap the remaining gear from the whale's tail and for the first time in weeks, the whale was able to swim freely.

"It is such a great feeling to save an animal's life and to see how our past experience rescuing whales and the advancement in technology came together," said Yip. "It was also a pleasure to work with so many professionals from other agencies who were dedicated and committed to this whale."

The agencies involved in the rescue included:

  • Alaska Whale Foundation
  • Blue Ocean Whale Watch
  • Clean Ocean Project
  • Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary
  • Marine Life Studies
  • Monterey Bay Whale Watch
  • Moss Landing Marine Laboratories Small Boat Operations
  • National Marine Fisheries Service
  • Ocean Conservation Research
  • Point Blue Conservation Science
  • SeaWorld
  • U.S. Coast Guard
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