There is no manual that outlines the proper way to tie a knot around a dead gray whale bigger than your boat.
Sizing up the massive marine mammal from the stern of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife patrol vessel No. 10, Taylor Kimball knew he needed to think on his feet even though he was careful where to step.
He called on the wisdom of fellow enforcement officer Ralph Downes, who was in the pilot seat, before possibly taking a wrong one.
“Is it disrespectful to walk on a whale?” Kimball asked innocently.
When their patrol outing started in the waters of North Puget Sound Wednesday, neither Kimball nor Downes could have imagined they’d end up towing a dead gray whale across Bellingham Bay.
But as with any day in Fish and Wildlife enforcement, they’ve come to expect the unexpected.
And that’s part of what they like about what they do.
“Yesterday, we take a newborn fawn trapped between two fences and save it,” Downes said. “Today we drag a dead whale.
“It’s all about the diversity.”
Downes, who lives on Central Whidbey, has seen just about everything in his 26 years on the job.
He’s spent 25 of those years enforcing state fish and wildlife rules in North Puget Sound Region 4, which spans Island, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, King and Whatcom counties.
The detachment that he and Kimball are part of spends most of its time patrolling the saltwater.
Downes knows just about every current, eddy and rocky feature and recognizes most of the faces of the veteran fishermen and shrimpers he encounters.
“The vast majority of the people we contact are law-abiding citizens who are engaged in legal activities,” he said.
He’s a man with a quick smile and friendly demeanor, but also is direct and in command, knowing full well the serious nature of his job and the resources he’s tasked to protect.
“My job is about compliance,” Downes said. “Some-times, you do it with a warning, sometimes a ticket. Sometimes, you take them to jail.”
On a sunny Wednesday morning, Downes and Kim-ball boarded their 32-foot patrol boat moored at the Cap Sante Boat Haven marina in Anacortes and set out on a quest to see how well they were doing their jobs.
Compliance is a measuring stick for success. The police officers, who are college educated and law enforcement academy trained before going on to more advanced learning, most often go out in pairs to have better control of situations.
They have the authority to board vessels and check licenses, ask anglers to reel in their fishing lines or shrimp pots to examine gear and to look in coolers at their catch.
Part of what separates fish and wildlife police from regular law enforcement is fish and wildlife officers don’t need probable cause of a violation to make a stop, Downes said.
“We don’t have to see a violation,” he said. “We have to stop and see if one exists.”
Downes describes it as the “authority to take a timeout” for the protection of the resources.
On Wednesday, he and Kimball decided they’d start out bound for Deception Pass.
On such patrols, unless they are reacting to an incident, there’s often not a set course and the day evolves as events unfold.
Vessel assists tend to be common.
“The truth of the matter is, we go out and see what we find,” Downes said.
On this day, the officers expected to see lingcod fishers and recreational and commercial spot shrimpers, all legal to catch in the waters they entered Wednesday.
They weren’t disappointed.
They encountered fishers of all sorts in calm, sunny conditions and approached each vessel following a similar routine.
Downes drove the boat, craftily pulling up alongside each vessel, while Kimball greeted anglers and checked licenses, catch and gear, paying close attention to hooks to make sure the barbs were pinched.
The exchanges were polite, sometimes jovial. Downes has known some of the commercial shrimpers for more than 20 years.
As they approached Deception Pass, one angler was in his boat with his dog jigging for lingcod. When he reeled in, remnants of barbs were revealed on the hook.
“Make sure you get the barbs pinched down,” Kimball told the angler.
“We’ll call it a warning for the day.”
Kimball and Downes are empowered to use their officers’ discretion in a vast majority of cases. Their jobs are made up of frequent judgment calls that can be impacted by whether they believe an angler’s mistake was deliberate or accidental.
They document when they issue an angler a warning and aren’t so lenient the next time. Education is a big part of what they do.
After their stop at Deception Pass, Downes and Kimball decided to see what was taking place around Lopez and San Juan islands.
The stretch is often where they see a variety of whales from orcas to humpbacks to grays, but not on this day.
They encountered more lingcod fishers and shrimpers and issued another warning to an angler about his gear, then gassed up their boat in Friday Harbor and had planned to head back toward Whidbey Island.
That was until Kimball got a phone call requesting an unusual assist.
“Just FYI, there’s a dead floating gray whale in Bellingham Bay,” he told Downes.
Towing a whale was even out of the norm for Downes, who had done it only once before.
This was a first for Kimball, a Ferndale resident in his fifth year with fish and wildlife police.
After assessing whether crab line would do and if they had enough of it, the officers sped off across the channel toward Bellingham Bay at about 2:45 p.m.
By water, it only took about 20 minutes to reach the whale, which was an estimated 40 feet long and probably weighed at least 20 tons, said Downes.
The female whale was floating belly up.
“It’s amazing how massive they are,” Kimball said.
And, as he found, after meeting with Downes’ approval, walking on the whale felt sturdier than walking on the boat.
The steps were necessary to get the rope over the whale’s head and ultimately under it, using weights on each side, so Kimball could tie a knot around its tail.
They were asked to take the whale to a remote beach on a nearby island where a necropsy would be performed later in the week to determine the cause of death and try to identify it.
Between four and eight gray whales typically die each year in Washington waters, said John Calambo-kidis of Cascadia Research Collective, a nonprofit re-search group that studies whale and dolphin populations along the west coast of North America and Hawaii.
Almost all of those that die in Washington waters are found to be stragglers from a group of gray whales that migrate along the West Coast that have a population of about 20,000, Calambokidis said.
He expected the whale to be from that larger group and not the female gray whale that was struck by a boater last month near South Whidbey.
That whale is part of a distinct group of about a dozen grays that visit Whidbey each spring.
It took Downes and Kimball roughly three hours to tow the dead whale to the remote beach. At one point, the line snapped and Kimball had to retie it.
As the sun started to drop over the horizon, Downes used the boat to help push the whale on to the beach. Eventually, Kimball took his shoes off, jumped on the whale then into the water and pulled from the shore.
He wound up tying the line to a tree after the whale was partially beached.
“There’s not really a handbook for this,” Downes said.
Downes and Kimball said they enjoy the flexibility of their jobs and how unique it is each day.
Both said they have very understanding spouses.
“I won’t get a call till maybe 10 p.m.,” Downes said.
“My wife learned a long time ago, if you hit the water you never know what you’re going to find.”