September 5, 2018
On Tuesday, September 4 the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) disentangled a young humpback whale east of Cape Cod. Injuries from its entanglement in fishing gear were extensive but the its health should improve over time.
The whale was first discovered entangled and towing an orange buoy last Saturday by sports fishermen off Monomoy Island. The CCS Marine Animal Entanglement Response (MAER) team mounted a response at that time but the whale was free-swimming and mariners lost sight of it.
On Monday morning sports fishermen off Nauset Inlet, Orleans, found and reported the whale but quickly lost sight of it in rough sea conditions. A second fisherman found the whale again later that afternoon. CCS again mounted a response and caught up with the whale but sea conditions worsened and the team was forced to postpone the rescue operation. Before heading back to port they attached a satellite tracking buoy to the entanglement so that they could relocate the whale the next day.
“The young whale appeared to have been entangled for some time and was in relatively poor condition” said Scott Landry of the MAER team. “It had bitten down on a buoy line used to mark fishing gear, so it was having difficulty feeding properly.” The whale also had healed propeller injuries across its back.
Based on the satellite telemetry track, the whale spent the night off Nauset inlet and began heading south after sunrise. As fog burned off and the seas calmed the MAER team headed out aboard the R/V Ibis for a second rescue attempt. Not long before arriving at the location indicated by the tracking device a sport fisherman reported a sighting of a humpback whale with an orange buoy in tow; the telemetry buoy however was sending signals from a different location and then went silent, presumably having broken away from the entanglement.
After a lengthy search the team found the whale a few miles away. They attached a long tether to its entanglement with a grappling hook and marked the tether with a large float. This allowed them to keep track of the whale and begin the process of slowing it down. “The whale was understandably wary of boats” Landry continued. “This was a very young whale that had already gone through quite a bit in its life.”
A small inflatable boat was deployed from the IBIS; using the tether, the inflateable was towed by the whale, slowing it further and allowing the crew safe access to the entangling rope. After a detailed assessment the team determined that the best course of action was to cut the ropes exiting both sides of the mouth and allow the activity of feeding to dislodge the rest.
Before heading back to Provincetown the team asked the USCG to issue a notice to mariners in an effort to relocate the tracking buoy. Within 20 minutes the buoy began to send signals again and was found adrift soon after, a few miles from where the whale had been disentangled.
The whale was later discovered to be the same one freed by CCS from a different entanglement off Cape Cod on September 12, 2017. The CCS Humpback Whale Studies Program is attempting to identify the individual.
Many thanks goes to the sports fishermen aboard the Double Take and Dragonfly for their dedicated help on this case as well as the USCG.
Boaters are urged to report any entanglement sightings of whales, sea-turtles or sharks 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 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.