Video credit: Ben Lester, Oregon State University

A crew of 20-25 people spent eight hours Tuesday freeing a juvenile humpback whale that had been entangled in fishing gear off the coast of Crescent City since Thursday.

The fishing gear, including a long line anchor and shrimp traps with about 15 pots, was wrapped around the 25-foot long creature’s mouth and both its pectoral fins. Another entanglement around its fluke anchored the whale to the sea floor, said Dr. Dennis Wood, executive director of the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, who was part if the disentanglement team.

Wood said the whale’s predicament made it easy for rescuers to find it, assess the situation and respond, but it could have been fatal for the whale.

“It was expending a tremendous amount of energy to swim and pull all that gear to the surface in order to breathe,” Wood said. “It was a whale that was never going to swim on its own again without the intervention of our team and the fishing vessels and all of those involved.”

Similar severe entanglements can lead to the eventual amputation of the flukes and possible death of the whale, according to Justin Viezbicke, stranding coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service West Coast office.

After the first report came to the Whale Disentanglement Network of the entangled whale on Thursday, Wood said he headed out to the location via the Del Norte County Sheriff’s boat to get initial assessments and photographs. He then flew over the whale on Saturday using a Cal-Ore plane, however getting photos of the whale when it was surfacing was difficult.

With help from the Coast Guard, Wood was able to get a closer look at the whale via helicopter on Sunday.

“All of this information went to National Marine Fisheries and was shared with our Whale Disentanglement Coordinator Ed Lyman in Hawaii and Jamison Smith, who’s in Washington, D.C.,” Wood said, adding that NOAA’s disentanglement network had been on hold due to the death of a whale disentanglement team member in Canada. “We had conference calls and discussions and the decision was made by the national network to allow us to proceed with the disentanglement. We got that final decision Monday afternoon.”

The rescue team was in the water at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Since the whale was anchored and somewhat safe to work around, the team’s first approach was to cut the lines around its head and mouth, Wood said. The team was then able to cut the lines around its right pectoral fin.

With help from local fishermen, who used their net reel to begin picking up gear attached to the entanglement, the whale’s fluke was brought to the surface, Wood said.

The team then had the option of moving in with their small inflatable boat to cut the entanglement from the whale. But Wood said the safest option was putting a member of the disentanglement team on a fishing vessel, using its net reel to bring the whale closer to the boat before cutting the line.

“With just a few cuts with that position, with nobody in harm’s way, the whale was free,” Wood said. “It shed every bit of gear even the gear through its mouth and all the gear around its pectoral flippers. He stuck around. He made three swims around the fishing boat and he disappeared to the west and that was it.”

The rescue team included disentangler Pieter Folkens, the Coast Guard Cutter Barracuda, Humboldt State University marine biology professor Dawn Goley and one of her undergraduates and HSU associate professor Jeff Jacobsen. Northcoast Marine Mammal volunteers Jesse Weldon and Corrine Fuoco assisted an Oregon State University drone pilot who provided aerial footage of the entangled whale. The rescue team also included several fishermen, Wood said.

According to Wood, NOAA scientists and the disentanglement team believe the whale had initially been entangled in a long line anchor with a red poly float attached. It was initially sighted about 15 miles southwest of Crescent City just with the long line on it Thursday, Wood said.

Long lines are placed in deep water, about 150 fathoms, where humpback whales are most likely to swim. Wood said the juvenile whale appeared to have dragged the long line closer to shore before getting caught in the shrimp gear.

Despite stories of entangled whales becoming aware of the rescuers trying to help free it, Wood said this particular whale wasn’t thanking them when making its three swims around the fishing boat.

“Pieter Folkens likened it to a prey-predator interaction,” Wood said. “(The whale) was checking out who had been irritating it, who had been touching it with a pole and tugging on ropes that were around it. It was not in any way helping us at least on purpose, that’s why it’s such a dangerous job.”

A whale’s reaction to entanglement depends on specific circumstances including the length of time entangled, the degree of entanglement and the initial condition of the whale, Goley said.

Humpback whales can be seen in California waters from April to December. They migrate to Mexico to breed and give birth during the winter and feed along the California coastline from April to December.

Wood said this whale appeared to have some scarring where the rope had gone from its mouth over its rostrum. There was also some chaffing near the base of the tail fluke.

Wood and Viezbicke also commended the response from the local fishing community. Wood noted that the last whale entanglement off Crescent City occurred 20 years ago. He said the cooperation from the fishing community is “tremendous.”

“Fishermen make up a large part of the disentanglement network,” he said. “When I go to trainings half the people are boat captains and fishermen.”

Viezbicke added that fishermen also helped by removing gear in the vicinity of the grounded whale to reduce any added threat.