Cascadia team saves entangled humpback whale (May, 2014)

Successful humpback whale disentanglement on 6 May 2014 off Grays Harbor, WA

John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research, Olympia, WA 98501. Phone 360-943-7325 ext 104 email:

On 6 May 2014 Cascadia personnel assisted by the Coast Guard and with NMFS support successfully disentangled a humpback whale that was almost completely immobilized by entanglement in crab pot gear off Washington. That morning, the Grays Harbor Coast Guard received word from the commercial crab boat Pacific Girl that they were with a whale entangled in crab gear off the entrance to Grays Harbor at 46 56.6 N and 124 17.0 W. A number of factors not typically present in entanglements of Washington made this an opportune case to respond to: 1) the report was in the morning with still time to respond, 2) there was a good position and the reporting party was not only still on site but was willing to stay in the area for several more hours to keep track of the whale, 3) the whale was fairly close to shore, just over 7 nmi from Westport Harbor, 4) weather conditions, while not perfect, were acceptable. A Cascadia team consisting of John Calambokidis, Jeff Foster, and Erin Stehr (intern at Cascadia) launched from Westport at a little after 1200 aboard Cascadia’s 5.9m (20′) RHIB Ziphid. Grays Harbor Coast Guard agreed to provide safety support and logistics assistance with one of their 47′ motor lifeboats. With the help of the reporting party, the whale was relocated at 1330 at 46 58.22N and 124 18.34W just over a nmi of the original location. We estimated the humpback whale to be about 35-40 feet long (perhaps 3-5 years old), with crab gear around the tailstock and flukes. The floats had algae growth on them indicating they had likely been on the whale for some time. The whale was surfacing almost vertically and was making very little lateral progress. Water visibility was very poor and combined with this body posture made seeing or acting on the entanglement very difficult. The whale was very approachable and allowed and possibly even initiated very close proximity to the boat.

A little after 1600 the whale’s behavior changed and it seemed more active and mobile. While it was still entangled, we suspect the original crab gear it was entangled in had hooked some additional gear that was constraining the earlier movements of the whale and perhaps were no longer attached. While this made it harder to stay with the whale it did show its back more regularly and when it would do so the some of the entangled rope and floats were also more visible near the peduncle and flukes. The trailing floats were extended a few meters from the flukes but we were able to successfully grapple these with a thrown grappling hook. Through a combination of boat maneuvering, using the line as a guide, and tension put on the grapple line we were then able to stay closely following the whale and get increasingly better looks at the nature of the entanglement and gear. The float line went over the left fluke, around and beneath the caudal peduncle and then back over the right fluke before extending downward to the crab pot (not visible). At about 1715 we were able to get into position where the line extending down to the crab gear was visible and were able to hook that line with our pole and apply a flying cutting head. The whale accelerated at that point, putting tension on the line (which we held by hand in the boat) and after about 30 seconds the cutting head cut through the line going down to the crab gear. When we put tension on the line we had grappled near the floats, we were able to unwrap and pull it completely free of the whale, and retrieve the gear. Identification markings on the float indicated it was a crab pot from Oregon. The whale swam rapidly away and was not resighted.

Head of humpback whale at the surface
Whale while still entangled next to Cascadia RHIB.
Floats and rope cut from entangled whale
Some of the gear that was entangling the whale that was removed.