Shortest entanglement and longest night for a young humpback whale off Provincetown

December 21, 2016
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The Center for Coastal Studies disentangled a young humpback whale yesterday off Provincetown. In a rare, chance occurrence, the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team witnessed the whale become entangled. Within an hour the team helped remove the gear from the whale.

The MAER team was conducting a research cruise with the CCS Humpback Whale Studies Program yesterday morning when they came across two young humpback whales feeding off Herring Cove, Provincetown. The whales were lunging through schools of sand lance (small fish often preyed upon by humpback whales) when one of the whales struck a buoy line marking fishing gear. The whale quickly drew the buoy beneath the surface.

“When the whale resurfaced nearby it was rolling and thrashing, clearly upset. It happened shockingly fast” said Scott Landry, director of the MAER program. The whale began to tow the fishing gear north, out of the bay, at a speedĀ of nearly 10 knots.

The team also reacted quickly and threw a grappling hook into the gear being towed by the whale. With a sixty foot length of rope and a large float, the grapple marked the whale during dives and helped slow the whale. This gave the team time to ready disentanglement gear, including a small inflatable boat. During this process the whale went through bouts of high speed swimming, then slowing to swim in circles. An hour after becoming entangled the drag of the large float the team had attached to the entanglement helped the whale draw all of the entangling rope from its body. It swam off quickly.

“Many people have been working long and hard to prevent entanglements but that process has been slow since very few whales have been seen becoming entangled. Without that information it’s hard to decide what to do. Based on what we saw yesterday it seems to us that entanglement is pretty straightforward. Whales blunder into rope during their normal behaviors and react in a panic. Sea and lighting conditions were excellent yesterday and the gear should have been visible to the whale but it obviously had other things on its mind” said Landry. “It was worrisome that had we not been there and witnessed the event, it’s very unlikely anyone would have noticed this whale and its entanglement. It was moving fast, its entanglement was not obvious and there were very few boats around. That whale was very lucky.”

The CCS Humpback Whale Studies Program is working to identify the individual whale which will allow them to follow up with the whale in the future. Jooke Robbins, director of the program, noted that “Humpback whales feed by lunging through schools of fish, often in areas where fishing gear is also set. Given the rapid speed and course changes required, they may simply not be able to respond quickly enough to avoid gear in their path or may be unable to do so without losing their meal. These are also some of the last feeding opportunities that our humpback whales have before their long winter fast and so going without that meal may not be an option.”

This is the tenth humpback whale disentangled by the MAER team in 2016.

Boaters are urged to report any entanglement sightings of whales, sea-turtles and other marine animals to the Marine Animal Entanglement Response Hotline (1-800-900-3622) or the US Coast Guard on VHF 16, and to stand by the animal at a safe distance until trained responders arrive.

CCS disentanglement work is supported by a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MA-DMF). Support for the Marine Animal Response Team also comes from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, Grace W. Allsop Foundation, DJ & T Foundation, Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation, Mary P. Dolciani Halloran Foundation, Hermann Foundation, Island Foundation, MALLRD Foundation, Pegasus Foundation, Towle Ocean Conservation Foundation, Alexandra Rose Tozzi Memorial Foundation, G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation, and contributions from CCS members. All disentanglement activities are conducted under a federal permit authorized by NOAA.