A specialized response team has freed a young, humpback whale from some gear entangled in its mouth and flipper off the coast of Lahaina, Maui.
On Tuesday, the team was able to free almost all of a gauge line wrapped around the whale’s left pectoral flipper, and trailing about 50 feet behind it. Unfortunately, despite several attempts, the team was unable to free a small amount of line from the whale’s mouth.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary coordinated the response in partnership with Cardinal Point Captains, Ultimate Whale Watch, the Keiki Kohola Project, and others.
“When the flipper came free, the whale sped up, its tail got higher and it started moving better,” said Ed Lyman, the sanctuary’s Natural Resource Management Specialist. “All that was promising. We were defeated on the mouth again. We pulled, but you can’t pull too hard.”
Altogether, more than 100 feet of line, including most of what was trailing behind the whale and wrapped multiple times around the flipper, was removed. The remaining line in the mouth may break free on its own.
Lyman noted, however, that this juvenile whale appeared to be in very poor shape. It was emaciated, and had patches of whale lice —an indicator of its poor condition. Based on a photo of its fluke, he believes it was the same one reported nearly a month ago off of the Kihei boat ramp.
That report was received a few days late, and the sanctuary could not find the whale. Lyman said timely reporting is key to responding quickly, which increases the chances of freeing the animal.
“We definitely helped it, and increased its chances of survival,” he said. “But it’s worse off than we thought.”
The sanctuary will be analyzing the gear recovered from the whale to try to determine its possible origins in an effort to help reduce entanglement threats in the future.
Lyman said tour operators and the community continue to play a vital role in reporting entangled humpback whales while they are visiting sanctuary waters.
Federal authorities do not recommend entering the water or trying to disentangle a whale independently, but to call trained responders with required permits. Federal regulations prohibit approaching humpback whales within 100 yards when on or in the water, and within 1,000 feet when operating an aircraft of drone.
The sanctuary also reminds boaters to slow down and keep an eye out for the animals, including mother-and-calf pairs, during whale season, which runs through May.
Sightings of any marine mammal in distress can be reported to the marine wildlife hotline at 888-256-9840.