Byline: Taylor Hill
LAGUNA BEACH — Laguna Beach’s Pacific Marine Mammal Center rescue team, along with personnel from the National Marine Fisheries Service, was involved with two whale rescue efforts in the same week.
The first occurred March 24, as reports came in from various Dana Point whale-watching boats near the Dana Point Harbor entrance that a gray whale was entangled in what ended up being more than 50 feet of gillnet and rope wrapped around its fluke.
Dave Anderson of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin Safari was first on the scene March 23. He attached a buoy to the whale with a tracking device that allowed the team to track the whale overnight, making for easier visibility.
Anderson’s wife, Gisele, coordinated with boater Peter Bartholomew to monitor the whale overnight. The next morning, the marine mammal center’s whale disentanglement team assembled.
Over more than seven hours, the team used various strategies and equipment — including four buoys, a flying knife, grappling hooks and lines — to reel in the whale and methodically cut the large amounts of discarded gillnet away from the animal. After hours of cutting, one of the lines snapped, and the animal was able to free itself.
“We estimated there was approximately 50 to 60 feet of gillnet and rope entangling the whale,” said Scott Sedlick, a marine mammal center staff member. “In the netting, we identified several deceased animals, including one adult sea lion, a 5-foot leopard shark, two angel sharks, various spider crabs, fish and rays.”
The effort, which started a few hundred yards offshore, ended approximately 4 miles off the coast of Corona del Mar.
“It was a pleasure to work with such a great team that willingly came together,” Sedlick said. “We saved a whale today. I’d say that’s a pretty good day.”
The team was initially encouraged following the release, as the whale’s behavior appeared to be normal. But a few days later, word from Long Beach came in of a dead whale found floating belly up in Long Beach Harbor.
Pacific Marine Mammal Center director of development Melissa Sciacca said that the whale was confirmed to be the one the group had freed just a few days earlier, and it was found with a black rope attached to its fluke and injuries to the base of its tail.
Despite the setback, marine mammal center whale rescue team members had to rally again only five days later, when a report came in the evening of March 29 that a sub-adult gray whale was entangled in more than 50 feet of nylon rope, wrapped around its fluke.
The entangled juvenile, with its mother close by, was initially spotted near Laguna Beach’s Emerald Bay by a private helicopter pilot. The following morning, a whale-watching boat off Redondo Beach spotted the whale, which was now alone, and the whale rescue team assembled and was ferried out to the whale by Los Angeles County Lifeguards.
After a nearly three-hour chase, marine mammal center staff member Dean Gomersall was able to sever the line, and the snarl popped free.
“The rescue team erupted in cheers,” said Pacific Marine Mammal Center support staff member Kelli Lewis. “They confirmed that they could no longer see any debris hindering the whale.”
At press time, the whale appeared to have made a successful recovery.