After two days of struggling to free a humpback whale that was caught in hundreds of feet of braided line off Maui, a federal team was able to remove the gear last week and received a show of gratitude — of sorts — with the whale repeatedly breaching.
“This was a good one,” Ed Lyman, of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said by phone today. “Everything kind of came together.”
At about 11:40 a.m. Thursday, the fishing boat Layla initially spotted several bouys in the water that turned out to be attached to a 285-foot stretch of braided line tangled around the whale’s mouth. After discovering the whale entangled in the line, the crew called federal officials.
The marine sanctuary, U.S. Coast Guard, and other agencies responded while the Layla monitored the roughly 40-ton, 40-foot long animal, Lyman said.
By 1:35 p.m., the marine sanctuary crew arrived on scene and began slowly approaching the whale in an inflatable boat to assess its condition. The crew managed to untangle some of the line that had been twisted around the cetacean’s mouth and cut away about half of the line.
After several hours of work, the crew thought they might be able to pull out the rest of the line when the whale clamped down and began swimming away. That’s when the crew decided to give the whale a break.
With daylight ending, the crew tagged the line with a tracking bouy and decided to try again the next day, Lyman said.
About 8:40 a.m. Friday, the crew relocated the whale and grabbed ahold of the attached line. They kept tension on the line and carefully walked the inflatable boat towards the whale, approaching slowly so the animal would know they were there.
Eventually, the crew got to within 50 feet of the whale as it floated head up below the boat, a favorable position to remove the line. The crew pulled out the rest of line at 10:20 a.m. before the whale suddenly swam away from the boat, Lyman said.
Immediately after the line was pulled out of the whale’s mouth it began breaching, bursting into the air several times.
“I think it was happy to be free,” Lyman said.
He said breaching is normal behavior for whales and helps them shed dead skin. He said there were indicators that the animal had been entangled in the line for about a month, such as its thinness, line scars, and marks showing the rope had wrapped around its body. The whale also had patches of whale lice, probably because it hadn’t been able to breach normally.
Lyman said it wasn’t clear who the line was attached to the whale’s mouth.
Officials were investigating to determine the line’s possible origins and to reduce future entanglement threats for whales, whose population around Hawaii are no longer listed as endangered, but are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It was the 25th whale released from entanglement by the sanctuary since rescue operations began in 2005.
Lyman said about two whales are freed a year. This whale season there have been at least five entangled whale sightings. One of the other four whales was freed from its entanglement on Christmas.