It has been estimated that marine mammal entanglement results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals world-wide each year. Humpback whales, with their long pectoral fins, flexible tail flukes, and acrobatic behavior, are very susceptible to entanglement in fishing gear, crab pot lines, and marine debris. A scar-analysis study on humpback whales in northern Southeast Alaska indicated that nearly 78% of the whales in that population have scars, suggesting that they have recently been entangled in some sort of gear.
Entangled marine mammals may drown if they are not able to get to the surface to breathe, or even if they can get to the surface, they may starve if they can’t feed. Summers in Alaska are when baleen whales ingest enough zooplankton and small fish to sustain them for the rest of the year, so any lengthy period of time away from feeding can be critical. Whales may also suffer physical trauma, develop systemic infections from their wounds, or be hit by a vessel due to the whale’s lack of agility and inability to avoid it. Even if the whale manages to get free from the entangling nets or lines, there may be long-term impacts, such as a reduction in reproductive success.
A few summers ago, we were motoring back to our lodge after a day of bear viewing with a group of summer guests, when friends called on the VHF radio and told us they had spotted a humpback whale that had gotten a crab pot line, with the crab pot still attached, wrapped around its tail. They wanted to take a closer look at the whale, so Mike picked them up in the 19-ft. whaler that we were towing behind us, and I stayed aboard our 43-ft boat with our guests and worried about the dangers involved in approaching a 45-foot, 40-ton mammal. They didn’t want to get too close to the whale and stress him even further, but they wanted to see how badly he was entangled in the lines.
The National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) warns all well-meaning, untrained individuals to never approach or attempt to disentangle a large whale on their own, and in fact, it is illegal to attempt to disentangle a whale without the permission of the NMFS. NMFS is part of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), and NOAA has a whale-disentanglement hotline (877-925-7773) that citizens can call to report entangled whales and initiate an “immediate” disentanglement response by trained rescuers. Rescuers throw grapples or use hooks on the ends of poles to attach to the entangling gear. They then attach large buoys, approach the whale to assess it and its entanglements, and use specially-designed knives on the ends of long poles to cut the whale free.
The idea of calling trained individuals to rescue this whale greatly appealed to me, and while it was a Friday evening, the hotline information stated it was a 24/7 hotline. I made the call on the satellite phone, but a recording informed me the office would be closed until Monday. Unfortunately for this humpback, he had become entangled after office hours.
We watched the whale fight its way to the surface to breathe, only to be pulled back under water by the heavy crab pot. After the whale became entangled, he apparently drug the gear into deeper water while he was trying to free himself. Now, the pot kept pulling him beneath the surface. His breathing was labored, and it sounded as if he was gasping for air. Mike and our friends slowly approached him, but the whale continued to thrash and move away from them. Finally, he moved quite a distance away, and they worried they were stressing him, so they left him alone.
We continued back to our lodge, and when we tied up to our mooring, we heard the distressed blow of the whale. He had followed us home, and the good news was that he was now in much shallower water, and the crab pot was resting on the ocean bottom and not continuously dragging him under water.
We watched the whale from a distance off and on all evening, and finally at 10:00 that night, Mike saw him raise his tail in the air several times before swimming away. Without the weight of the crab pot dragging him down, he was able to disentangle himself from the gear.
I hoped that would be the only entangled whale I ever saw, but unfortunately, on July 29th, 2015, we encountered another humpback whale with a crab pot wrapped around its tail. Since it was a Wednesday, I had hope that the whale-disentanglement experts would come to its rescue. We placed the call, and they recorded our information: Latitude and longitude, species and type of entanglement, condition of the whale, and the speed and direction it was moving. We hoped they would be able to mobilize immediately, but we were informed they would not be able to come out until the following day. We were concerned the whale wouldn’t make it that long and hoped that his humpback, like the previous humpback, would drag the pot into shallow water and set himself free.
That evening when we returned home with our guests, the humpback had moved several miles and was now in front of our lodge. We were happy he had made it to shallower water, but when we examined him more closely, we saw that he had wrapped the line several additional times very tightly around his tail. We were dubious he could be disentangled at this point. Before long, he slowly headed back toward deep water, and we feared he wouldn’t last much longer.
The following day, there was no sign of the whale or the buoy attached to the crab pot line. We searched the bay but saw nothing, so we called the disentanglement experts, and they cancelled their rescue mission. We hoped the whale had somehow freed himself, but we feared that wasn’t likely.
I imagined this tale of the entangled tail would have a happy ending like my first tale, and it is possible the whale did free himself and swim away, but I doubt it. At first I was upset with the disentanglement crew. If they had arrived a day earlier, they probably could have freed him. I was upset with us, because we didn’t have the knowledge and skills to help the whale, even if it was legal, and I was irritated at the crab fisherman for having his gear in the way of a whale. The more I thought about it, though, I realized that’s just the way it is when you choose to live in the wilderness so far from town. The members of the disentanglement crew have lives and jobs and can’t just drop everything to fly across the island on a moment’s notice to help a whale. That’s an expensive, complex endeavor that takes some time and planning. Even if we did have the proper equipment, training, and permission, approaching a huge whale is a dangerous task and best orchestrated and performed by those who have had previous experience. Finally, all of us who live and work near the ocean on Kodiak at sometime drop crab pots or deploy fish nets. It was nobody’s fault that this young whale, perhaps out of curiosity or playfulness, decided to approach this crab pot line too closely. It was just bad luck.