Public asked to be on lookout for entangled whale

Tour boat and helicopter operators and the public have been asked to be on the lookout for a juvenile humpback whale, entangled in a bluish-greenish line, spotted off Lahaina on Monday afternoon.

The 20-to-30 foot humpback, weighing 25 to 30 tons, was first observed by the Pacific Whale Foundation’s Ocean Discovery tour vessel around 4 p.m. about 1 miles outside of Lahaina Harbor and was tracked by the vessel and later by Hawaii Ocean Rafting’s Great White.

However, the whale eluded the vessels before the Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network could arrive on the scene from Maalaea.

“Unfortunately, the animal continued north toward a wind line, started doing longer dives and began traveling faster,” said Ed Lyman, Large Whale Entanglement Response coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “Along with the diminishing light, this made monitoring the animal very challenging. As a result, the animal was lost sight of just prior to our arrival,”

“We lost it,” he said Tuesday. “We kinda lost it in the choppy seas.”

Lyman said they searched for the animal until sundown without success.

Still, Lyman sounded hopeful for the health of the whale. Based on photos of the entanglement and the fact that the animal could still swim, he did not believe the whale would die in the next day or two. Whales can survive months or even years with entanglements, Lyman noted.

“We have the word out, so hopefully we get a resight,” he said, noting that even helicopter tour operators have been notified to be on the lookout.

This is the earliest response to a whale entanglement in the whale season in the more than 10 years of the team, Lyman said.

Since its inception in 2002, the Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network has successfully freed 17 whales of entangling gear and in the process removed more than 7,000 feet of line, said Anne Rillero, Pacific Whale Foundation spokeswoman.

Ocean Discovery was returning from its 2 p.m. whale-watch cruise when it spotted the whale, she said.

“We spotted a blow ahead of us on the way to the harbor,” said Sierra Frye-Keele, the foundation’s senior vessel staff person. “As we got closer, we noticed that the whale didn’t seem to be lifting its fluke (tail) out of the water as it dove. We eventually realized that the tail area was entangled in a what appeared to be a large, green polypropylene line.”

The crew contacted Lyman and tracked the whale for about 40 minutes, before giving way to the Great White. Ocean Discovery had to disembark its passengers at Lahaina Harbor, said Rillero.

“Ocean Discovery and Great White did great monitoring the animal,” Lyman said. “Early on when the crew of Ocean Discovery was monitoring the animal it was traveling slowly with short dive intervals. Time, that wind line and a change in the animal’s behavior worked against us all.”

Even if they were able to reach the whale, the team would have tried to attach a transmitter to track the animal and disentangle it at a more opportune time and location, he said.

Based on the photos, it appeared that the whale was double entangled in a half-inch blueish-greenish line, said Lyman. Line was wound around the base of the tail and around the fluke, and two wraps were around the forward part of the animal.

Although studies indicate that some animals will free themselves on their own, Lyman said that was unlikely in this case because of the multiple wraps.

“It (the entanglement) is pretty involved,” Lyman said. “We consider that life-threatening.”

The entanglement can affect mobility to the point where the whale cannot feed itself, leaving it vulnerable to starvation and infections, he said. In addition, the whale will be more susceptible to ship strikes due to decreased maneuverability and increased hovering at the surface.

When they find the animal, Lyman’s team will attempt to free the animal. He also wants to get his hands on the wraps to identify the source and to possibly prevent the threat.

He said that entanglements are not always caused by fishing gear and that whales can lug around the material from feeding grounds in Alaska. Whales can get entangled in mooring, anchors and marine debris, though the majority of entanglements are caused by fishing gear, Lyman said.

Those wanting to report an entangled whale should call the NOAA Fisheries Hotline at (888) 256-9840 and collect as much information as possible about the whale, including location, speed and direction traveling. Pictures and videos also will help teams better assess the situation.

* Lee Imada can be reached at