For more information contact: John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research, Phone: 360-943-7325
Biologists from Cascadia Research, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and National Marine Fisheries Service managed to cut-free lines and float from a juvenile gray whale Sunday in northern Puget Sound. The juvenile gray whale was estimated at 25-30’ and had been sighted in recent weeks swimming around northern Puget Sound with some rope tightly wrapped through it’s mouth and over the top of its head. It appeared to be the rope and float from some crab gear.
There had been sporadic reports of a gray whale tangled in gear in Puget Sound going back to 17 April but the reports had been so infrequent that it had proved difficult to locate the animal. The whale was spotted by a whale-watch boat from Mosquito Fleet near Whidbey Island on Saturday.
John Calambokidis and his son Alexei conducted a gray whale survey to look for the animal on Sunday. While they were following one gray whale near Mukilteo, they heard a radio call from a boater to the Coast Guard reporting the entangled whale only 3 miles away. At 2:40 PM they located the entangled whale and notified Brent Norberg of National Marine Fisheries Service and Steve Jeffries of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. John and Alexei Calambokidis managed to assess the nature of the entanglement but did not have the specialized gear needed to free the animal.
The whale was not trailing any ropes or gear making it impossible to try and secure or stop the animal to conduct the disentanglement (the typical procedure). The tightly wrapped rope through the mouth and around the head, however, would likely have been fatal to the animal. The only way to attempt to free the animal was to try and approach it while it swam along and attempt to cut the gear free, considered one of the hardest and riskiest situations to attempt a disentanglement.
At 5:00 PM Steve Jeffries and Brent Norberg arrived with some of the specialized gear including long poles, a specially designed blade for cutting ropes without injuring the whale, ropes, and floats. They were picked up in Cascadia’s 18’ rigid-hull inflatable at Mukilteo by John and Alexei and the four returned to the whale now just north of Clinton. Steve Jeffries operated the long pole from the front of the boat. At the end of the pole was a detachable cutting head that was secured to a line and float being held by Brent Norberg. Alexei Calambokidis took photographs of the whale while John Calambokidis slowly drove the boat matching the whales speed and approaching from behind the whale. At 6:05 PM Steve was able to reach and snag the line right at the whale’s mouth. Brent provided a few hard pulls and the line cut through.
The whale reacted by accelerating and lifting and slapping its flukes, putting water into the boat and on its next surface leaping out of the water now free of the gear. They followed the whale for about an hour more to insure it was free of the gear. The whale appeared in good shape and was behaving normally.
Photographs showing rope and float on gray whale before being cut free on 18 April 2003. Click on image for more detailed photograph.