Entangled humpback rescued

NOAA Fisheries thanks research biologist, pilot for freeing the whale

A humpback whale entangled in heavy gauge lines used for mooring docks, taken Nov. 21 near Prince of Wales Island. (NOAA photo by Scott Van Valin)

A humpback whale entangled in heavy lines used for mooring docks was rescued on Nov. 21 in Southeast Alaska by a research biologist for the Alaska Whale Foundation, aided by a veteran pilot/fishing lodge owner.

NOAA’s North Pacific Large Whale Entanglement Response Team had received word two days before Thanksgiving of the possibly life-threatening situation of the subadult humpback, who was entangled around the upper jaw in heavy gauge lines used for mooring docks.

The entanglement, in Sarkar Cover, north of Naukati on Prince of Wales Island, included two buoys and a dense snarl of lines, about the size of an ice chest, NOAA officials said. Several lines covered the leading edge of the blowhole, adding to the distress of the whale.

A NOAA spokesperson said chafing marks around the whale’s midsection suggested the whale initially had been ensnared in a full body wrap, perhaps immobilizing the pectoral flippers.

The good news was that although water visibility was poor on Nov. 21, winds were calm, heavy recent rains had ended, and the whale was in a calm, protected bay.

Fred Sharpe, an experienced member of the NOAA whale response team, was flown to the scene to assess options for response, and consulted with Ed Lyman, NOAA’s lead large whale entanglement response expert, on safe strategies before attempting to free the whale.

With Sharpe was Scott Van Valin, owner of Island Air Express and El Capitan Lodge.

Whale rescuers Fred Sharpe, left, with Scott Van Valin, owner of Island Air Express and El Capitan Lodge. (Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries)

In their initial approach they observed that the whale was still energetic and could easily become agitated, so they withdrew and waited until the whale calmed down.

Sharpe then used a long pole to slip a hooked knife with line attached on the entangling lines, then backed off and pulled on the line, so the knife cut through the ensnaring gear.

The team made several cutting approaches before successfully removing all the gear from the whale.

“We had a great team,” said Sharpe, a board member and research biologist with the Alaska Whale Foundation. “We all worked together to carefully and safely approach the animal and remove the gear.”

“Using the carbon fiber poles and specialized knives that NOAA folks sent with Fred made all the difference in getting the animal free, Van Valin said.

Sadie Wright, acting large whale entanglement response coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Alaska regional office, praised the work of Shapre and Van Valin, who postponed their Thanksgiving plans to rescue the whale.

From Van Valin’s initial report to NOAA Fisheries about the entangled humpback to his assistance in providing information and transportation to enable the NOAA response team to act efficiently and safely to aid the whale, “he was instrumental in the success of this disentanglement effort,” she said.

“We would like to commend Scott’s and Fred’s efforts during this event, which resulted in a safe, deliberate assessment and rescue.”

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