On Monday, July 27, the Center for Coastal Studies Marine Animal Entanglement Response hotline (CCS MAER) received notification from the US Coast Guard of a whale in distress about ten miles east of the entrance to the harbor of New York City. The MAER team then spoke with the recreational boaters reported the sighting, who described a humpback whale that appeared to be anchored in place with its head sticking out of the water. The concern of the recreational boaters began a chain of events that led to a massive three day effort, involving the hard work of many agencies, to disentangle the 2016 calf of a well-known humpback whale named Nile.

On Monday afternoon the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (AMSEAS), one of the partner organizations of the New York Stranding Network, working with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC), went out to assess the condition of the whale, which was quickly relocated at the position provided by the recreational boaters. The whale appeared to be anchored in place, but at that time the responders were unable to see any entangling line or gear. Thankfully the whale was still just able to reach the surface to breathe.

On Tuesday morning AMSEAS and DEC returned to the whale and confirmed that a heavy, complex entanglement around the body and tail had anchored it to the seafloor. Photographs of the entanglement were relayed to CCS and NOAA for further assessment; based on the new information, the partners were able to put together plans for a disentanglement attempt.

The next morning CCS MAER members Scott Landry, Maria Harvey and Bob Lynch, along with almost 900 lbs of specialized disentanglement equipment, flew from Provincetown to New York on a flight donated by Turtles Fly Too, a non-profit organization that provides emergency air transportation when endangered species are threatened or injured. CCS and AMSEAS staff were then transported to the scene aboard vessels provided by NY DEC.

On site, the MAER team deployed a small inflatable boat that enabled them to maneuver safely around the whale and assess its entanglement. The whale was caught by its flukes by a massive amount of fishing gear, including thick ropes, netting and buoys. This twisted mass of gear then descended straight down to the seafloor. Over a period of several hours they made several strategically-placed cuts through line wrapped around the whale’s flukes and were able to remove multiple buoys. Despite their best efforts, the whale was still anchored in place when the team had to return to dock at dark.

Early Thursday morning, DEC vessels with the AMSEAS and CCS were back on the water. Despite many more cuts being made and many of the cutting tools being broken, the teams realized that more help was needed. Later in the day a member of the NOAA NEFSC Sandy Hook Lab aboard the R/V Heidi-Lynn Sculthorp, from Monmouth University’s Urban Coast Institute arrived and grappled the sea floor for the entangling gear beneath the whale and began to haul it to the surface. The gear was then transferred to the larger ship Hayward from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The Hayward then raised the gear still higher, above the surface, which finally allowed the whale to resume a normal posture and breathe with ease.

For the first time the MAER team was able to see why so many of their rope-cutting tools were failing. Buried under the massive amount of rope was half inch steel cable wrapped round the flukes of the whale. Within minutes the crew of the Hayward, working high above the MAER team below them, passed down bolt cutters and hacksaws. By 4 pm the team finally managed to cut through the cable, and the whale bolted off, free of gear.

“That was among the more challenging whale disentanglement cases we have dealt with. That whale was fighting to live. All the folks we were working with on the water the last two days were fighting to help it”, said Scott Landry, CCS Director of Marine Animal Entanglement Response. “Without intervention that whale would not have survived. While it’s not entirely out of the woods yet, it’s prospects are now 100 percent better than what they were. We are optimistic we will see the whale again and like the majority of humpback whales off our coast it will bear the scars of entanglement.”

The visible injuries to the whale were not severe, but included multiple lacerations to all body areas and some deep lacerations at its tail.

Landry noted that, in this case, the threat to the whale was one of potential. “The whale could not perform normal behaviors, such as feeding, and was at severe risk of being struck by ships or attacked by predators. It was anchored to the sea floor and could barely make it to the surface to breathe. Each high tide would have been extremely difficult on the whale.”

Based on the documentation gathered by all teams during the disentanglement, the CCS Humpback Whale Studies program identified the whale as the unnamed 2016 calf of Nile, a whale first catalogued by CCS in the Gulf of Maine. Nile herself was entangled in 2001 and last seen by the MAER team on July 26, 2020, as they worked to disentangle another Gulf of Maine whale known as Scylla.

Boaters are urged to report any entanglement sightings of whales, sea-turtles or other marine animals to the MAER team (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 is extremely grateful to all of the agencies and organizations involved in the disentanglement response: US Coast Guard Sector New York, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (AMSEAS), Monmouth University Urban Coast Institute, Northeast Fisheries Science Center Sandy Hook Lab, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and NOAA Fisheries.

Special thanks goes to the boaters who initially reported the sighting, and to Turtles Fly Too for transporting the CCS MAER team and gear to and from New York. Their swift response significantly increased the amount of time CCS was able to spend on the disentanglement operation and reduced the amount of time they were away from their response area of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

This work was conducted under Permit 18786-04, issued to the NMFS Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

Boaters are urged to report any entanglement sightings of whales, sea-turtles or other marine animals to the MAER team (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 grants from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MA-DMF), and the Massachusetts Environmental Trust. Support is also provided by the Broad Reach Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, the Pegasus Foundation, the Hermann Foundation, the Mary P. Dolciani Halloran Foundation, and contributions from CCS members. All disentanglement activities are conducted under a federal permit authorized by NOAA.

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Entanglement Hotline: (800) 900-3622
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(508) 487-3622
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Provincetown, MA 02657
(508) 487-3623

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