End Of the Rope : Disentangling a Humpback Whale

It is not every day you get to save the life a whale. In fact, it may not be more than once in a lifetime. However, I can say with certainty, that if you are able to successfully save a whale from entanglement it is the best feeling in the world. You will feel like life just cannot get much better!

On September 16th, 2018, the 35-foot landing craft, Silver Spoon, cruised through the flat waters of Chatam Strait about 30 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. The bluebird day was abnormally sunny for autumn in Southeast Alaska. On board, Captain Billy Mills was taking Kurt Pesch, Kathy Pesch, Kassie Pesch-Johnson and myself up the coast looking for wildlife. We passed False Bay on the east side of Chichagof Island and were near when Wukuklook River when we spotted a whale on the surface.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
We spotted a whale on the surface. At first we thought the whale was sleeping, but we soon discovered it was towing a rope and buoys.

Ordinarily a whale on the surface is just a sleeping whale. In a typical encounter they wake up, swim a bit, and may eventually take a dive. However, this whale displayed some peculiar behavior by keeping its nose above the water. As we got closer we could see it was pulling a set of buoys behind it and those buoys were keeping it from diving. We watched the whale from a distance to determine the extent of entanglement. The whale never dove and was making distressed chirping sounds with its blowhole. Armed with this information Billy radioed the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau to report the entangled whale. They collected information on the whales condition and informed NOAA, and informed us they not have any vessels in the region to reach us soon. The whale was moving quickly so the likelihood of NOAA resighting and disentangling the whale was low. Billy made the call to go about helping the whale as we could.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
The entangled whale had the buoy line through its mouth with a hundred feet or so of line dragging on the left side and about 40 feet of line attached to the buoys. The buoys were keeping the whale from diving.

Before I start into the rest of this tale I need to put out a disclaimer. Humpback Whales and ALL marine mammals deserve your respect. You need to respect all rules regarding minimum distances from whales and we only made the decision to approach this whale after knowing that professionals were not available to help in this situation.  We felt the likelihood of the whale dying were high if we did not at least try to fix the situation.

We approached the whale slowly and encountered the loose green buoy line (the end not attached to the buoys) behind the whale about 100 feet. Using a boat hook we picked up the end and then began to pull the line into the boat. We pulled in much of the line before the whale panicked and took off. I was able to sever the line before the whale stripped it back out of the boat. Not many people can say they’ve had a whale on the line! The whale dove briefly but came back up a few hundred yards way to continue its pattern of swimming with its nose above the water. This just proved to us that the whale could not function without removing the buoys.

The whale was moving quickly, perhaps 12 knots, but we slowly came up behind it for a second approach. With boat-hook in hand our goal was to snag the buoys and complete the disentanglement. Soon I had the buoys in hand and we began to draw more line into the boat. We were fortunate! The loose end of the line began to slide through the whales mouth essentially “flossing” it. This allowed us to remove much of the line.

After pulling much of the line through the whale’s mouth something truly incredible happened. The whale stopped in the water, opened its mouth, and slid backwards into the ocean. It was almost as though it knew we were trying to save it! After sliding backwards into the water the whale began to move and pull the line. More slid through its mouth before finally catching. I severed the line and the whale gave a half breach, a flip of its fluke, and then we did not see it again. Although some of the line was left on the whale it was able to dive and stay down!! We felt confident the rest of the line would eventually get removed. We had done it!!!!

After freeing the whale from most of the line and the buoy it gave a half breach and dove beneath the surface. We did not see it again! Image credit : Kurt Pesch

One of the puzzling things was why this whale was unable to stay down. Although the four crab pot boys attached it were very buoyant, it did not seem like enough to keep the whale on the surface of the ocean. The whale was medium-sized and pretty young. My theory is that the whale acted much like a horse would to the pressure of a bridle and reigns. The upward pressure of the buoys may have kept the whale on the surface. I do not have any proof that, just a theory.

After doing some research I discovered that crab pots like the one this whale entangled in are the most commonly reported. I know I will be doing my part by being as responsible as I can with my sets. Do not use floating line as was used on this crab pot set.

There are times when doing nothing can be better for the animal than doing something. It is likely in this case that the whale would have become more entangled in the long rope and would have injured itself or been unable to swim. I am proud of us all for giving this whale a far better chance for survival!

If you find a in injured, stranded, or entangled marine animal, please report it through NOAA. You can find their number for any region by visiting their website.

One thought on “End Of the Rope : Disentangling a Humpback Whale”

  1. “Billy made the call to go about helping the whale as we could.” Gave me goosebumps. Full grown humpback = 35 tons, I’m guessing this youngster =maybe 12 tons? That’s about the same as 4 SUVs. Brave/noble decision by Captain Billy and crew. Gave me goosebumps.

    There is no battle plan for something like this. But a boat full of resourcefuls can make one up on the fly. Which is what happened.

    We talked with Ian last night, youngster had outgrown Mama, so she was not part of the drama.

    Whales be smart creatures. I think participants on both end of the drama will carry memories for a lifetime. Meanwhile, anybody reading the tale above says “I wish I had been there.”

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