After driving hours (and hours) through So. California traffic in a rare rainstorm on a Friday evening, we made a quick rest stop at a donut shop (as you do) in San Luis Obispo — almost to Monterey! That’s when we got the phone call: it’s too windy to go out tomorrow. The all-day whale watching trip has been postponed to Sunday. Hmm, major bummer. This means we would have to extend our quick marine-mammal-viewing-fix trip and drive through the night on Sunday after a long day on the water, in order to make it home for work Monday morning. Not much other than the possibility of catching a glimpse or two of hunting orcas would make this a no-brainer. We didn’t think twice; we’re in!
And so, after a leisurely Saturday enjoying the Big Sur coast and all it has to offer, we were super excited to jump on a boat early Sunday morn and get out into the Bay, where there has been an abundance of prey for whales since summertime. So many whales! I’m a marine biologist and I don’t often find myself on whale watching boats, but sometimes it’s nice to take off my scientist hat and just sit back as a tourist and enjoy nature. And no better folks to share the experience with than my whale-loving friends, Rachel, Leigh and Marah. And when I say “love,” I mean it in the deepest possible sense of the feeling. Let me paint you a picture: Both Rachel and Leigh were *sobbing* (not an exaggeration) before we even left the harbor as they listened to one of the naturalists onboard telling a tale of last week’s orca attack of a baby gray whale, and the heart-wrenching sight of the mourning mother gray. Death and grieving are hard to watch, but ladies, pull it together! This is what we (at least I) am here to see. The circle of life! An increase of baby gray whale attacks by orcas warms my heart.
Ok, settle down, I’m a vegetarian and animal-lover, I hate to see or hear of animals suffering. It pleases me because it means that gray whale numbers have risen to (some believe) carrying capacity, and that my friends, is a good thing. And good for the whale watching biz as well, it seems. (Eastern North Pacific gray whales were delisted from the US Endangered Species Act in 1994.)
Right away, we spotted several dozen Rissos dolphins, and a very stealth mom-calf pair of gray whales nearshore. The girls were overjoyed to spot this wise mom safely ushering her calf, and they gleefully encouraged the two to stay the course and swiftly and quietly make their way north to their foraging grounds in Alaska. I’m not gonna lie, I was hoping there were orcas around. There were not. So, our blackfish search continued.
Our captain received a tip from some salmon fishing boats in the area of an endangered blue whale sighting. We bee-lined over to where the largest animal to ever exist on this planet was last sighted, and sure enough, we couldn’t miss it. It was the first blue whale sighting of the year in the Bay, and we were lucky to get great looks at two of it’s surfacings.
Still looking for orcas, we began to transit along the edge of the Monterey Bay Canyon (video), which is 12,713-feet below sea level at its deepest point– deeper than the Grand Canyon! We had been noticing lots of endangered humpback whale spouts all around the Bay, but as humpbacks are common within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, we passed them by without bother and kept our eyes peeled for the black-and-white top predators. However, when we stumbled upon a single humpback milling at the surface, we were compelled to pause and observe, as something didn’t seem quite right. The whale was surfacing frequently near two crab pot (video) buoys, but didn’t seem to be covering much distance, or diving. It only took us a couple of minutes to realize that this whale, guessitmated to be a juvenile, was attached to the buoys and in distress. Ugh. (cue sobbing)
This humpback whale was entangled in the line that stretches from the crab pot to the surface buoys, and the line was likely already abrading and perhaps slicing skin. We had no way of knowing how long it had been entangled and suffering, but we did know it had little chance of surviving the interaction without help from humans. This pot was not only trapping crabs, it was now trapping a >20-ton endangered animal, inside a Marine Sanctuary. Sad Panda-of-the-sea.
Without hesitation, I called my friend Dr. Elliott Hazen, a marine researcher at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Fisheries Environmental Laboratory in Pacific Grove, not far from Monterey. I gave him our coordinates and asked him to call the NOAA marine mammal stranding hotline. Five minutes later, Justin Viezbicke, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) California Stranding Network Coordinator, called my cell phone to get details. I texted him a picture of the entanglement so he could estimate how much line the whale was dragging and tethered to, and its proximity to the buoys in order to efficiently assemble the proper equipment and disentanglement team.
Meanwhile, our boat, one of the Monterey Bay Whale Watch company’s fleet, communicated with the Coast Guard and other whale watching vessels by radio to devise a plan to take turns having only one boat track the entangled whale’s location until the experts arrived. This ensured the stress imposed on the whale was minimized while help was on its way. Tourists, including us, were diligently taking photos and video in case they might be useful to rescue efforts. We stayed a while and then passed the baton to another whale watching boat, “High Spirit,” who then handed the tracking responsibility over to a third boat, “Ranger.” Once the NMFS disentanglement team arrived, it was approaching sunset and they wouldn’t be able to free the whale that day, so they attached a large buoy and a satellite tag to track its whereabouts overnight. They’d return at dawn the next morning to continue the rescue mission. I was grateful Justin relayed the update that they were able to tag the whale overnight, but he said it was a “pretty bad wrap where the tail meets the peduncle.” (“Peduncle” is the base of the tail, where it connects to the fluke.) Worrisome.
The four amigas made it to work on-time Monday morning, with heavy but hopeful hearts. The entire day, the highly-trained California Whale Entanglement Team (WET) worked tirelessly to carefully cut the animal free from the commercial crab pot. Once weather moved in, they had to abort the rescue for the day and try again the next. At the end of day 2 (Monday), here is the update I received from Justin, “They got the crab pot off… there’s still some line [attached to the whale, the team will] go back out and try to get the rest off tomorrow.”
Tuesday morning, the local news reported that the previous day’s efforts had freed the whale of 90% of the netting and line (video and pictures), an estimated 200-300 pounds of fishing gear, including 300 feet of Blue Steel rope. This is good news, because if they had not been successful, the whale would have likely lost its fluke preventing it from diving and eating– almost certain death. While a major hurdle has been leapt, the whale is not yet in-the-clear. There is still some line wrapped three times around its tail, and its ability to recover and thrive post-entanglement is unknown. Free from its tether, the whale swam south Monday night and Tuesday, and the distance and weather on Tuesday prevented WET from getting back on the water. NOAA will continue to monitor its status and will launch another response effort when they are able to. Fingers crossed it can shed the remaining line on its own! For updates, follow @MBNMS, @TuckTales1, and @lepeavey on Twitter.
We have much to celebrate! The collaborative efforts between the whale watching vessels, the US Coast Guard, tourists, WET, and the NMFS was incredible. Everyone did their part, and no one did more than they were qualified to do. The hands-on rescue efforts were left to the skilled and trained responders, but all-hands were on deck to provide support. Teamwork of all those involved, and the well-wishes of bystanders, wrapped this entangled humpback in love, and that, I believe, is the circle of life my whale-hugging friends were hoping to see. And we were in the right place at the right time to find it.
Thank you to all those involved with this rescue mission. Everyone is hoping for continued success for this humpback, who was lucky to have had this unfortunate encounter with fishing gear inside a National Marine Sanctuary where it was able to get the help it needed, fast.
If you should ever encounter a distressed marine mammal near Monterey, call 831-SOS-WHALe (831-767-9425) to reach the trained rescue team.
p.s. We also saw Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbor porpoise, sea otters, harbor seals, and hundreds of sea lions and seabirds. All-in-all, a great day on the water for us on April 27, 2014.
ENTANGLEMENT UPDATE: Good news!! After being freed from the crab pot tether, the humpback continued to travel south, and on May 14th, 2014, offshore of Santa Barbara, NOAA’s disentanglement team was able to remove *all* of the remaining line that was wrapped around its tail. A happy ending for our humpback on hump day! Many thanks to all those involved with this multi-week rescue effort, and to all the concerned folks who followed along sending positive thoughts for a full recovery. If you see a humpback in the Santa Barbara Channel this week, it might just be this brave survivor.