How do you disentangle a whale that’s become caught up in marine debris? With patience and a whole lot of training. And, most importantly — without ever getting in the water.

Every winter, thousands of humpback whales visit Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. In the warm, shallow waters off the Hawaiian Islands, these majestic whales mate, give birth, and begin to raise their young. For a whale watcher, it’s paradise. On boats and from shore, you can spot whales breaching powerfully. You can glimpse the brief puff of air from a whale spout or witness a mother humpback and her calf surfacing calmly.

But there’s a sadder side to the story. Each year, fishing gear and marine debris entangles some of the whales coming to Hawaii. Entanglement can slow a whale down, causing it to expend more energy on its long journey from its feeding grounds. Entanglement can also cause physical trauma that leads to infections. In some cases, it can exhaust a whale, ultimately drowning it. Whale disentanglement can be a tricky undertaking, but fortunately, there is a team at work in Hawaii each season to help.

 

The Hawaiian Islands Large Whale Entanglement Response Network

The Hawaiian Islands Large Whale Entanglement Response Network is a consortium of government agencies, nonprofits, and whale-watching companies is led by Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Its mission: to safely disentangle whales from marine debris.

Responders are highly trained, and for good reason: whale disentanglement is both difficult and dangerous. If responders were to get in the water with an entangled whale, there’s a chance that they, too, would become entangled.  The whale could also panic and pull them down.

So instead, rescuers follow the whale in a small boat, using a grappling hook to attach a series of buoys to the debris to keep the whale at the surface and slow it down. They follow the whale until it tires enough to let them get closer. Then, they use a custom-designed knife attached to a long pole to cut away the gear entangling the whale without cutting the whale. Typically, after several passes, the whale is free. Then, the team uses the grappling hook once again to remove the debris from the water so that other animals don’t become entangled.

How many whales have been freed?

Since 2002, the network has freed more than 20 whales from all or significant amounts of entangling gear. In the process, they’ve removed more than 10,000 feet (3,000 m) of gear from entangled animals. “The goal is not only to free whales, but to gain information to reduce the threat in the future,” says Ed Lyman, resource protection and response coordinator at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

“To that end, we have gone a long way toward identifying the gear, where it came from, how was it set, and more.”

Though the disentanglement network is on standby by to cut whales free, responders like Lyman work to keep the whales from getting entangled in the first place.

As a diver, angler, or whale watcher, it can be tempting to launch a rescue if you see an entangled whale. But doing so can put both you and the whale in serious danger. Instead, if you’re in Hawaii, call the regional NOAA Fisheries Hotline at (888) 256-9840 or reach out to the U.S. Coast Guard at VHF Channel 16. If you’re outside Hawaii, you can find contact information for your local stranding network here. From there, trained responders like Lyman will work to free the whale and remove the gear from the water. By working together, we can protect these magnificent animals.

By Elizabeth Weinberg, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

Cover Photo Credit: Ed Lyman/NOAA, under NOAA permit #14682

 

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