Entangled Pacific Gray Whale rescued off Palos Verdes

gray whale rescue
Photo by KTLA
gray whale rescue

A pacific gray whale struggles after becoming entangled in a lobster ropes. Rescuers were quickly on the scene and the whale was quickly disentangled 24 hours after the first sighting. Photo by KTLA

A juvenile Pacific Gray Whale was rescued Thursday afternoon after the struggling mammal was spotted off of Point Vicente Interpretive Center early Thursday morning.

The 25-foot whale was first seen Wednesday night and tagged with orange buoys by the U.S. Coast Guard. Because of weather conditions, they had to hold off the rescue until conditions became more amicable.

“I didn’t get much sleep last night knowing what was going to happen tomorrow and how difficult it was going to be,” said Peter Wallerstein from Marine Animal Rescue, a non-profit organization which assisted in the operation .

gray whale rescue

Photo by Bobbie Hedges.

The whale, named Bob by Voyager captain Brad Sawyer, was spotted by Libby Helms, a whale census volunteer at 9:06 a.m about 200 yards off the point while she was watching for whales for the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project.  The volunteers at the center were alerted the previous night to keep their eyes open for the bright buoys and struggling whale. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the ACS Gray Whale census project and the California Killer Whale Project, was alerted after the whale was  spotted and immediately started making calls to local rescue units.

One of her first calls was to the local whale watching vessel, the Voyager. After getting the call, Captain Sawyer and his crew didn’t waste any time getting to the struggling whale, bypassing their usual whale watching spots and heading straight to where Helms last saw the orange buoys.

The Voyager was first on scene. Photo .

The Voyager was first on scene. Photo .

The whale, a 25-foot two year-old juvenile Pacific Gray Whale, was found struggling to dive, blowing at the surface every five minutes.  Buoys were attached to his body and lobster rope tightly wound around its peduncle, a spot above the tail that often tangles with nets.

Wallerstein believes the juvenile could have become entangled in the black and orange rope anywhere from Baja California to Huntington Beach. The lobster trap that was at one time attached to the rope was nowhere to be seen.

“It may have been on there for awhile,” said Bobbie Hedges, a Cabrillo Whale watching Naturalist on the Voyager. “The whale was definitely struggling.”

Schulman-Janiger thinks the whale probably picked up the rope south of the border because the line and little buoy attached to it did not have identification numbers required in California. Schulman-Janiger also mentioned that many whales are found with scars from netting around the same area near the tail.

gray whale rescue

A Pacific Gray whale struggles after becoming entangled in a lobster rope. Photo by Bobbie Hedges.

“There’s got to be a lot of whales out there carting around gear,” said Schulman-Janiger. “We were lucky to spot this one and recognize its need for help.”

Bob was not alone. The night before, he was spotted around Huntington Beach with another, larger whale of lighter color. The next day, he was seen with a smaller, darker whale. Nobody is sure when the first whales were separated and the other whale showed up, but shortly after the Voyager arrived to keep their eyes on the struggling whale, the second left and was not seen again.

The Voyager was first on the scene; packed with a boat full of excited whale watchers ready with cameras and binoculars, ready to see a rescue.

The rescue was more difficult because of impending fog and choppy surf. Photo .

The rescue was more difficult because of impending fog and choppy surf. Photo .

“We got on the ship and the captain said we were going to go out and look for it,” said Karyn Newbill, a teacher from Palisades Charter High School who was on the boat with her class. “We saw the helicopters and the orange buoys and watched where it went until rescuers came. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”

Once rescuers got on the site the main problem was getting the whale’s tail free from the tightly bound lobster fishing ropes.

“It’s not easy getting close to a moving whale,” said Wallerstein. “We used special hook knives and held on.”

Divers entered the water and attached the rope to their vessel. The whale towed their zodiac boat a couple of miles until they were finally able to get it free from the mass entanglement by 1:30 p.m.

“This was a satisfying one,” said Wallerstein. “That whale would have been doomed if we didn’t get to it.”

Among those who responded to the floundering whale included the Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center, U.S. Coast Guard helicopters, the Redondo Beach Harbor Patrol, Baywatch Lifeguards, the Voyager and Wallerstein’s Marine Animal Rescue.

“Now the whale is completely free,” said Schulman-Janiger. “Any one segment couldn’t have done it, this was an excellent team effort.”

The mission wasn’t easy. Even though the stormy weather was over, rescuers had to work through big swells and visibility was poor because of incoming fog.  After they were able to disentangle the whale, people were seen fist pumping and high-fiving each other on the boats. After the final cut, the whale took off — swimming strongly. Wounds from the rope were not deep and rescuers predict the whale will survive,  Schulman-Janiger  said.

“It was a good team effort that made it a success,” said Wallerstein. “Now he’s on his way north for the rest of the long migration.”

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