Teamwork saves entangled whale in Santa Barbara Channel

Teamwork saves entangled whale in Santa Barbara Channel

SANTA BARBARA — First spotted off the coast of Monterrey on April 27, the tale of this entangled 25-foot humpback whale wouldn’t end for nearly three weeks. The entangled humpback was reported by the Point Sur Clipper whale watching boat, staying near the surface with a long blue line and a buoy trailing behind. The vessel called the whale entanglement team (WET) noted that the whale appeared in distress, and waited on scene until WET could arrive.

In Monterrey, Pieter Folkens and his WET team were the first responders. They were able to remove 250 feet of line and a crab pot, before high wind and seas made it impossible to stay off shore,” said National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Stranding Network Coordinator, Justin Viezbicke.

The team hoped that removing this much line and equipment would aid the whale in swimming more freely. They also attached a satellite tag to the animal to be able to track its whereabouts, and then started working on a plan to help the whale further.

Wind and seas continued to make it impossible for the WET team to provide relief to the animal. Satellite telemetry helped the hopeful rescuers keep track of the whale as it swam near 610 nautical miles over a period of a few weeks as it headed toward the Santa Barbara Channel.

Late May 14, the whale was tracked near Goleta Point off the coast of Santa Barbara. Pre-dawn the next morning the WET team, Sea World Rescue vessel and crew, Viezbicke and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary crew and the R/V Shearwater departed Santa Barbara Harbor to search for the whale.

“We were in luck. We spotted the animal only 5 miles off shore of Goleta Point,” Viezbicke said.

Using inflatable vessels provided a buffer between the whale and the rescue teams. If it hit the boats, it would bounce off gently, without causing the animal additional stress or harm.

With helmets, gloves and life vest on, the team carefully removed the satellite tag, and took pictures and monitored the whale for another hour just to be sure their devised plan to remove the rest of the line would work without causing further harm.

“We determined the crab pot line had knotted in a triple loop and was synched tightly around the tail where the flukes attach. Due to the sheer weight of the crab pot weighing down the tail, the line had become imbedded several inches,” Viezbicke said, adding, “If we had just tried to cut off the line first, we would most likely have cut the whale, too.”

With the aid of crews aboard Sea World and Shearwater vessels, the line was finally unwrapped allowing the rescue team to cut away the remaining line at the synch, freeing the whale to swim away and dive.

“With the help of the marine sanctuary, Sea World Rescue, the Shearwater crew and all the volunteers, this was a happy end for all,” stated Viezbicke.

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