On Dec. 6, a team from NOAA's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA's Pacific Islands Regional Office, and Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources successfully freed a young humpback whale that had become dangerously entangled in rope.
The whale was first reported to NOAA's Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network on Dec. 1 after it was spotted off Maui by crew members on the Ocean Explorer, a Pacific Whale Foundation vessel.
Upon arriving on-scene last week, Sanctuary staff found hundreds of feet of heavy gauge polypropylene rope emerging from both sides of the whale's mouth and crossed tightly over the whale's head. Two lengths of line, one with a bundle of gear at the end of it, trailed hundreds of feet behind the humpback.
While rough seas thwarted an immediate disentanglement effort, Sanctuary members were able to tag the whale with a telemetry buoy so it could be tracked with assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard.
To free the whale, the crew first attached a sea anchor, a device like a parachute underwater, to the whale to slow it down and help keep it near the surface. The team then hooked a knife to the rope near the whale's back using a long pole, needling the blade between the rope and a cleft left by a wound from the rope. The knife was then attached to another sea anchor. After 10 minutes, the knife sliced through the line, freeing the whale.
On Sunday, rescuers were finally able to get close enough to free the whale from the line using specialized equipment.
According to Sanctuary staff, it was a unique event because the whale was a yearling swimming in close proximity with its mother and a male escort. Past disentanglements have not included other animals in such tight association. In addition, the young whale was particularly energetic. While this rescue was especially challenging, all such responses are potentially dangerous.
After the operation, the whale swam away in apparent good condition.