Entangled Whale Rescue

By Peter Wallerstein

The call came in on the 28th of March, 2012 from Dean of the Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center (PMMC) in Laguna. He was reporting a whale that was spotted off Huntington Beach traveling northwest in LA County’s direction that had rope line tightly wrapped around its fluke. PMMC was able to attach floatation buoys to the line trailing the whale in an attempt to slow the whale down so that rescuers might have a chance to catch up to the whale to attempt to rescue the young whale. It was dark when Dean and his crew had to leave the whale. There’s danger when rescuing a whale during the daytime, but conducting a whale rescue at night increases that danger 10 fold. Dean knew the whale was heading towards MAR’s territory and immediately gave me a call.

With this type of entanglement the future for the whale was bleak. The line would cut deeper and deeper into the whales skin and eventually the whale would succumb to the infection and die. We prepared that night for what we might encounter in the morning. None of us got much sleep that night.

The next morning calls started coming in from helicopter pilots, whale census people and whale watch boats. The whale was spotted off Palos Verdes. The entangled whale had made its way to Los Angeles County. I contacted the LA County Lifeguards and they immediately offered support from Baywatch Redondo, Captained by Evan Cassaday and crewed by Lars Gustafson. We launched MAR’s zodiac, got our gear together and waited for the PMMC crew to arrive on scene. We would work together to help free the young California gray whale.

The whale watch boat Voyager located the entangled whale about ¾ of a mile off shore and stayed on scene until we arrived. Also on scene for support were Redondo Beach Harbor Patrol Officers John Picken and Tim Dornberg. The rescue teams plan was to attach additional floatation devices to the trailing gear in an attempt to slow the whale down even more, hoping that would give us a chance to approach and free the young 25-foot whale. Using grappling hooks and line to attach the zodiac to the trailing gear we then hand pulled the line, pulling us closer and closer to the whales tail. We had some close calls as the whale felt the tension of the line would either dive or change its direction snagging the trailing line to the boat causing it to take on water and taking the rescuers for a wild ride. No time for slow reactions!

We went through this process for 3 hours getting closer and closer each time. The gracefulness and strength of the whale was impressive. With Dean and Scott working the specialized rescues tools from the bow, I took the helm of the zodiac as we continued our efforts. We would pull ourselves within feet of the whales large tail as it continued swimming. The incredible fluke would surface directly in front of us and then glide below the surface. We approached the whale again and this time we saw our chance. With the large rolling surf making the approach more challenging, I maneuvered the zodiac closer and closer. The whale surfaced. With Scott and I securing the line, Dean with the knife pole in hand reached over and made the critical cut. All of us on the boat knew immediately it was a success as we felt the tension of the trailing line disappear. The young whale was free!

Many thanks to Dean, Scott, Kelli of PMMC, Baywatch Redondo, Baywatch Marina del Rey, Redondo Harbor Patrol, ACS at Point Vicente, Brad Sawyer Captain of the whale watch vessel Voyager, NMFS, and Dave and Alisa Janiger.