At about noon on Sept. 13, the crew and passengers of the Blue Ocean Whale Watch boat, which operates out of Moss Landing Harbor, spotted bunches of humpbacks a few miles off the shore of Moss Landing. Kate Cummings, one of the boat’s owners and a naturalist, was narrating through a PA system what animals the passengers were seeing.
Then she saw one whale acting oddly.
“Humbacks do chin-slaps, when they come halfway out of water and crash down on their chin,” she says. “This one was doing it in weird angles. First it wasn’t clear what was happening, so we got closer. That’s when we saw line wrapped around its head and through its mouth.”
The whale was tangled up in spotted-prawn lines – lines that were attached to 25 spot prawn traps anchored to the bottom of ocean. It was struggling to keep its head above water by “skulling” with its pectoral fins, a sort of desperate motion akin to a tired person treading water.
Cummings told the passengers the boat would remain with the whale – “that if they had any appointments, they might want to cancel them.”
She overheard one passenger with a dinner reservation get on his phone. “I have to cancel,” he said. “I’m stuck on the water saving a whale.”
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Cummings made a fateful phone call herself, to the fellow members of her Whale Entanglement Team. The team was named by Jim Harvey, now the director of Moss Landing Marine Labs, and goes by the acronym WET. They mobilize in boats – including a 19-foot Donzi research boat they acquired through the Monterey County Gives! annual nonprofit fundraising push, a Zodiac FC470 and a boat they borrow from a similar outfit in Alaska – to free whales entangled in fishing gear and nets. There are other such disentanglement teams across the world; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program in Silver Springs, Maryland, coordinates all their efforts.
The Monterey Bay team was established in 2008 – but it was conceived, almost by accident, thanks to a chance call Peggy Stap received two years earlier.
In 2006, Stap held a garage sale in New Monterey to raise money for her research, youth education and conservation nonprofit Marine Life Studies. Helping her with the sale was Mary Whitney, the founder of Carmel’s Fluke Foundation. Stap’s phone rang. A whale watching captain told her there was a whale in trouble off Carmel.
The call came to her because she had done humpback research in Maui for 10 years, had started working in the Monterey Bay with the Oceanic Society, and founded Marine Life Studies here in Monterey County.
But she didn’t know of any local rescuing resources. There are strict laws under the Marine Protection Act that regulate how close people can get to whales, even for the purposes of helping them. Whitney, who worked for the Whale Trust in Hawaii, suggested Stap call Ed Lyman. He’s a NOAA employee who carries the cumbersome title of “marine mammal response manager” with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
He teaches fishermen how to avoid entrapping sea animals. But when it happens, he teaches people how to free them. He developed his methods on the East Coast on baleen, or so-called “right” whales – “the most notoriously difficult whales to disentangle,” Whitney says – relocating to Maui to run NOAA’s Pacific disentanglement program with Dave Mattila.
“Ed’s the disentangler of our country,” Stap says.
That same day Lyman reached Bob Yerena of the Monterey NOAA office, and got Stap and Whitney’s colleagues, including local photographer and filmmaker Bob Talbot, authorization to disentangle the whale.
They didn’t have the best tools, like specialized whale rescue blades with dull tips to avoid hurting the animal further, or throwing grapples or trident cutters. The boat was a dive boat, bigger and less maneuverable than those used now.
They succeeded in freeing the whale, but the haphazard effort convinced Stap and Whitney of the need for a formal team. “It wasn’t done in the way we would have wanted,” Stap says.
They really wanted a fully trained team with all the gear it needed – and a toll free number.
On the urging of the National Marine Fisheries Service, they reached out to Pieter Folkens. Trained by the Smithsonian as a natural sciences illustrator, he was a world-traveled field naturalist for the Oceanic Society and National Marine Mammal Lab. He encountered entangled animals during those travels and, he says, “because I had a strong understanding of the animals, I became the obvious person to participate in disentanglements.” That started in the 1970s.
Together they worked through NOAA, partnering with Moss Landing Marine Labs, Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz and the National Marine Sanctuaries. It took a couple of years to get the permits and grants from private donors and the Fluke Foundation, and to gather the equipment – including motors, radio antennae, GPS telemetry buoys, cutting instruments, a rollup boat that travels overland easily and a trailer to pack it all into.
“We were feeling our way through the dark,” Whitney says. “The tools took a year to order.”
Their campaign – which encountered confusion and resistance simply because people hadn’t heard of the group – received key support and credibility from the Conservation Working Group, one of four groups of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council, which Whitney sat on, as well as NOAA and the National Marine Sanctuaries.
Lyman flew out from Hawaii to run the first official training and open forum of the Whale Entanglement Team at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories on May 8, 2008. On May 9, the core team roster was assembled. On May 10, they got their first call for an entangled whale.
They went out and found a humpback with crab pot lines wrapped across the barnacles under its chin. Because the line wasn’t around the tail, fins or body, Lyman determined that it might free itself and they didn’t intervene, since it can stress the animal.
“I saw that whale, 10 days later,” Stap says, “free of gear and fluke-slapping next to a pair of crab pot buoys.”
That sometimes happens. But not always.
~ ~ ~
By the time the whale rescue call came in September, the all-volunteer WET was numbering about 30 people with a hotline for people to report entangled whales: 877-SOS-WHALE.
They still need the reporting boat to stay with the whale so that they can find it. With the September incident, the boat that called it in couldn’t stay with the whale the entire time it took WET members to assemble and deploy from the dock in Moss Landing. So Kate Cummings of Blue Ocean Whale Watch asked another boat, Fast Raft, captained by Kate Spencer, to come and stay near the whale.
Spencer did just that. She steered to the site and then navigated WET over to the whale when they arrived two-and-a-half hours after the initial report. It was three or four miles offshore.
The first thing the Whale Entanglement Team did on Sept. 13 was assess the situation, taking notes on the species, size and condition of the animal. They took photographs to potentially ID the animal later and noted the time, longitude, latitude and details about the fishing gear. They also determined if it might shed the gear without their intervention, as with their very first official disentanglement. It didn’t look good.
The time spent gathering this information helps acclimate the whale to their presence. A distressed whale can headbutt their boats, capsize them with their tail, or even smack them with a 15-foot long pectoral fin. People have been killed trying to disentangle whales while in the water, Stap says. And this whale was 50 feet long.
“It was a big sucker,” Folkens says. “One of the biggest we’ve worked on.”
Folkens is the rescue team leader, a founding board member of the Alaska Whale Foundation, and a whale disentangler since 1979. The first mammal he rescued was a sea lion in Baja, Mexico, that he freed from filament wire with a pocket knife and wire cutters. He’s one of three people in California who have a permit from the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program to do this work.
The other members of WET work under the auspices of that permit.
In order to assess the situation, team member Kathi Koontz lowered a carbon fiber pole, affixed with a GoPro camera at the end, below the waterline so the team could see, on a monitor, the extent of the problem.
“The fins were coming out of the water. Like a front stroke. You don’t see humpbacks do that,” Stap says. “The entanglement was in through the mouth and twisted and pulling its head down. We assumed the animal was doing that to keep its head above water.”
The line went through the mouth like a horse’s bit.
They took photos and video above water, pulled up about 300 feet of blue spot prawn line trailing behind the whale, attached a GPS telemetry buoy to part of it and cut away about 200 feet of the line, which is made of ropes reinforced by steel cable. The spot prawn traps have numbers on them so NOAA can trace who they belong to.
That’s how they discovered who set the traps. Folkens identifies a fisherman from out of the area without local knowledge of the area’s animals. He put down 25 pots with mud anchors and some 900 feet of spectrum blue steel line in waters only 300 feet deep. “There was a tremendous amount of rope loose in water,” Folkens says.
The whale, feeding in the same waters, swam through a phalanx of the loose rope and got snagged. Folkens deduces the whale dragged the loose line until it became taut. One line went into its mouth, then was cinched all the way to the rear of its mouth. The line was anchored to the bottom. In trying to free itself, it became more entangled.
“It would have died,” he says.
But he doesn’t ascribe malice to those responsible for the ropes.
“The fishermen don’t want to lose their gear, and they don’t want whales entangled in them,” he says. “Whales feed in same area as crabs and spot prawns. Fishermen are doing a job making a living.” That’s a major reason NOAA works with fishermen, looking at different types of gear that can avoid entanglements.
At the same time, anchovies have been coming closer to shore, where crab and shrimp pots are set. The population of humpback whales, which feed on anchovy, has been growing. It’s more crowded down there.
The team usually gets eight reports a year in Northern California. This year, they’ve had 16 – nine in Monterey Bay. Three of them the team disentangled, two of the whales threw the gear, four were never resighted. For every one reported, Stap estimates there are many more that aren’t.
The fishing gear can cut into the whale’s skin, down to the bone. If the line is wrapped around their tails, they can lose their flukes. Their bones can be crushed by their own struggle to free themselves. The lines can restrict breathing and eating.
But if the team gets to them in time and frees them, the ocean has a way of healing wounds.
“Orange sea lice,” Stap say. “They help animals heal. It’s a good sign. They clean out the wound. Animals in the sea have a great advantage of recovering from wounds.”
The longest disentanglement of the WET crew started in Monterey Bay and ended 17 days later in Santa Barbara. That is far better than a different slow-moving alternative: If the whale isn’t freed, they can die slowly – over an average of six months.
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Back in September, as the team cut away 200 or more feet of slack line that was trailing behind the animal, dusk was coming. Since darkness makes things like knives on poles near wounded animals even more dangerous – and the boat wasn’t outfitted for lights – they would have to leave and come back.
The GPS telemetry buoy attached to the tangled blue steel line would allow them to find the whale the next day.
One can imagine their sleep, if they got any that night, was troubled with thoughts of the humpback trapped, confused and struggling to avoid drowning.
Stap was already haunted by another interrupted rescue. On May 1, she was coming back from a research boat trip off the Peninsula when she spotted a humpback in distress. She called Folkens and got authorization to investigate.
She was struck by what she saw. She could see its ribs. The line wrapped around its mouth menacingly. It listed to the right so dramatically it didn’t break its dorsal fin above the surface.
“It was one of the worst entanglements I’ve ever seen,” Stap says.
The sky would soon be dark – and Stap didn’t have a GPS telemetry buoy on her boat to affix to the whale. She did the next best thing and mobilized the team to try to find the whale the next day. They looked for two days until the water got too choppy. Then they looked for a third day. They didn’t find it.
“No way it survived,” she says. “If only we had a second buoy we might have been able to save it. I think about that whale every day.”
~ ~ ~
On Sept. 14, with the help of the buoy attached to the prawn lines, the team took three boats out of Moss Landing Harbor and found the tangled whale again.
Folkens, the rescue team leader, drove Lincoln Shaw and Kathi Koontz in a Zodiac Grand Raid III, loaned by Monterey filmmaker Chuck Davis. In the Marine Life Studies’ Donzi boat were WET co-founder Mary Whitney, CSUMB intern Stephanie Marcos, Peggy Stap and Connie Sanchez. Jay Ireland, Kate Cummings and Heather Willis followed in an open outboard boat called the Boston Whaler.
The team got to work.
The rope had worked its way to the back of the mouth, near the whale’s eye, and looked most serious, like a constricting lasso. They attempted to cut the line with a knife affixed to a pole, but that was too risky – they could easily gash it, leaving the whale bleeding and attracting predators.
“A big animal like that, seeing a sharp object around its eye, a boat bouncing up and down,” Folkens says. “It could [capsize] us.”
The three boats regrouped and talked about what to do next.
Folkens proposed a novel approach that Stap says she’s never seen deployed before or since: They would use their own rope to free the tangled rope.
They strung about 200 feet of rope between two boats and drove to either side of the whale. In the center of the rope, Folkens attached a three-pronged trident cutter in the middle and weighted it down like a fishing lure. Then they motored past the whale, pulling the line underneath the whale. The trident, they figured, would meet the blue steel anchor line hitched in the whale’s mouth and running down to the prawn traps below.
“The idea was that if we cut the grounding line,” Folken says, “the flotation buoys would pull the remaining line through the mouth of the whale like dental floss.” And that’s what happened. Not all at once, though. Things took a dramatic, even surreal, turn.
Whitney was holding one end of the rope between the boats. She could feel the trident catch the rope, cut it, the blue steel line pull, and then the startled response of the whale. Before she knew what was happening, the whale had slapped at the trident with its tail and sent it sailing in the air.
“Just imagine youself at the end of a line with a whale at the other end,” Whitney says, laughing. “We got pretty banged up.”
The line was no longer anchored to the pots below, but it was still gouged into the back of the whale’s mouth. And the whale was swimming away.
“It was dragging the line,” Folkens says. “It didn’t pull out of the mouth all the way. We had to let it be.”
But they had the GPS telemetry equipment and buoy, and orange floating poly balls attached to that line. The whale was taking them with it. It slowed the whale down, a technique whalers employed, using barrels, to hunt them long ago.
In the following days and weeks, Folkens kept colleagues apprised of the movement of the buoy. It went 40 miles offshore. It went beyond the Farrallon Islands. It went to Bodega Bay and Point Pinos. The whale, seemingly, hadn’t freed the line from its mouth yet, but it was swimming. Or maybe it was currents carrying a whale-free line and buoys.
Or maybe the whale’s lifeless body, hampered from feeding because of the line, was being carried by the current.
There was one way to find out.
When they got a ping from the buoys that it was in at Killer Point, they took Folkens’ fast VHT Hurricane boat and went out to where the signal was coming from. The Coast Guard helped them.
They found all of the flotation buoys and 375 feet of the blue steel line and no whale attached. The whale swimming against the drag of the floating lines had pulled the rope free.
“It worked,” Folkens says.
The whale was loose to live out the rest of its miraculous life, free from the entanglements of humans.
Since then, storms have pushed the green telemetry buoy that the whale left behind from Point Sur to Santa Cruz. The Whale Entanglement Team hopes to be able to retrieve it.
They’ve tried twice, but its low profile above the water and a 45-minute lag on GPS readings complicate things, as does wind that can move it a mile quickly and help hide it behind swells.
“I can imagine we’ll have more and more entanglements as the oceans continue to change,” Whitney says. “We need, we need, another telemetry buoy.”
They held a fundraiser at Museum of Monterey last Saturday that raised $2,500 of $6,000 needed to buy one.
Stap wonders whether the whales know that the strange people floating in the water, with their small boats and peeking cameras and knives and ropes and bouys, are there to help them.
“You hope so,” she says.
Stap is originally from Michigan and didn’t see her first whale until she was 41 (she’s 60 now). Today, she says, “I love humpbacks.”
She’s also precise in her recall and exacting in her words – until she tries to describe the feeling of freeing a whale.
“Oh my gosh. There aren’t words to describe it,” she says. “You’re so thrilled to see that animal go off and travel and feed. It makes your heart sing. You’re thrilled, exhausted. It’s not easy – the high seas and long hours. You’re just… there aren’t words. It’s an incredible feeling.”