Whale freed from derelict gear

A marine rescue operation Sunday freed a gray whale from derelict fishing gear.

Biologists from Cascadia Research, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Service managed to cut lines and a float from a juvenile gray whale off Mukilteo. Reports of a whale in Puget Sound with rope tightly wrapped through its mouth and over the top of its head had been circulating since at least April 17.

The whale was seen near Whidbey Island Saturday. The rope and float appeared to be from some crab gear.

“The gear had looked like it had been on the whale quite a while,” John Calambokidis said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “Some of the rope was digging into the whale’s skin.” Calambokidis estimated that the whale had been wrapped in the gear at least a month but that the whale probably did not become entangled in the Puget Sound. Instead, Calambokidis said the gear was probably picked up by the whale on its spring migration north from Mexico.

According to a press release, John Calambokidis and his son Alexei were conducted a gray whale survey. They heard a radio call to the Coast Guard reporting the entangled whale. Tthey located the whale and notified Brent Norberg of National Marine Fisheries Service and Steve Jeffries of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. John and Alexei Calambokidis did not have the gear needed to free the marine mammal.

The whale was not trailing any ropes or gear, making it impossible to try and secure or stop the animal to conduct the disentanglement (the typical procedure). “The general conclusion is entanglement through the mouth is likely to be fatal if not removed,” Calambokidis said. The only way free the animal, which Calambokidis estimates weighed 5,000 pounds, was to approach it while it swam along and attempt to cut the gear free, considered one of the hardest and riskiest situations to attempt a disentanglement.

While the rescue was tricky, Calambokidis said they took “every safety precaution possible.” Each person carried a water-proof radio in their pocket in case the whale swamped the boat or a person was knocked overboard.

At 5 p.m., Steve Jeffries and Brent Norberg arrived with specialized gear including long poles, a specially designed blade for cutting ropes without injuring the whale, ropes, and floats. They were picked up in Cascadia’s 18-foot rigid-hull inflatable at Mukilteo by the Calambokidis and the four returned to the whale now just north of Clinton. Jeffries operated the long pole from the front of the boat. At the end of the pole was a detachable cutting head that was secured to a line and float being held by Norberg. Alexei Calambokidis took photographs of the whale while John Calambokidis slowly drove the boat matching the whale’s speed and approaching from behind the whale. At 6:05 p.m. Jeffries was able to reach and snag the line right at the whale’s mouth. Norberg provided a few hard pulls and the line cut through.

The whale reacted by accelerating and lifting and slapping its flukes, putting water into the boat and on its next surface leaping out of the water now free of the gear. They followed the whale for about an hour more to insure it was free of the gear. The whale appeared in good shape and was behaving normally.

“It was a very dangerous procedure,” Susan Berta, with Greenbank-based Orca Network, said. “There was no way to slow or steady the whale. It took a very skilled team to keep a safe distance and still free the whale.”

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