Whale freed off Lahaina

Adult humpback had been entangled in 340 feet of heavy line

An adult humpback whale entangled in heavy gauge line is spotted Monday off Lahaina. Trained responders spent Monday afternoon freeing the whale in what was the first successful disentanglement of the current whale season. NICOLE DAVIS photo

An adult humpback whale entangled in 340 feet of heavy gauge line was freed by a team of trained responders off Lahaina Monday, officials reported.

Responders worked to free the animal over the course of more than three hours, according to a joint statement from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Coast Guard.

It was the first successful disentanglement of the current humpback whale season, which runs from about November to May, said Ed Lyman, whale entanglement response coordinator and resource specialist with the sanctuary.

The crew aboard the Wahine Kai, an Ultimate Whale Watch boat, first reported the entangled whale to authorities at 11:50 a.m. Monday. At 1:20 p.m., the sanctuary’s response vessel Kohola was underway from Maalaea Harbor, with personnel and volunteers from the sanctuary, NOAA Fisheries and NOAA Corps on board. The U.S. Coast Guard also was ready to assist.

At about 1:30 p.m., the West Maui response team aboard the Wahine Hana was able to attach a telemetry buoy to the trailing gear so the whale could be relocated if lost. Using pole cameras and other gear, responders discovered that part of the line was inside the whale’s mouth and trailing out, Lyman said.

Lee James (from left), lead for the West Maui response team, Nicole Davis of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service and Ed Lyman of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary work to disentangle the whale from the line, which was caught in the whale’s mouth. JASON MOORE photo

“We try to look first,” Lyman explained. “We don’t run up and start pulling and cutting.”

By 2:30 p.m., the Kohola joined the West Maui team on site. The entangled whale was not spending much time at the surface, so responders decided to launch the inflatable vessel from the Kohola to try to keg the whale. The technique calls for slowly adding buoys to the gear to keep whale closer to the surface, slow it down and perhaps be able to pull the gear from the whale’s mouth.

At around 4 p.m., the West Maui team added the first kegging buoy. Soon after, responders aboard the inflatable added two more buoys. At 4:46 p.m., after the teams had added three total buoys and gradually moved them toward the animal, the line pulled from the whale’s mouth, and the animal was free.

“Sometimes all the animals need is that purchase,” Lyman said. “There’s nothing in the ocean to purchase, or pull against, and they need that helping hand. And in that case we gave enough of a hand to help the whale help itself.”

Measurements later showed the line was 340 feet long and 3/4-inch thick, Lyman said, adding that responders knew the bundle of rope had been in the whale’s mouth because it stank of “whale breath.” The gear will be analyzed to help officials determine where it came from and how to reduce the threat of entanglements in the future.

It was the third reported entanglement of the season. Response teams couldn’t get to the previous two whales because reports came too late in the day and conditions had been rough. Lyman said having the time, as well as people reporting whales in distress and keeping an eye on them until help arrives, are the keys to successfully disentangling whales.

“If we get to the whale, we have a good chance of helping it,” he said.

Monday’s effort involved responders from NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Office, NOAA Corps and the West Maui response team. The team of responders is authorized under NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

Mariners are asked to keep a sharp lookout for whales in distress, but not to approach closely or attempt to assist them. Only trained and well-equipped responders that are authorized under NOAA are permitted to assist whales and other marine mammals.

Anyone spotting a marine mammal in distress should maintain 100 yards of distance and call the NOAA 24-hour hotline at (888) 256-9840. If unable to call, radio the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Ch. 16 and it will relay the report.

It is illegal to approach a humpback whale closer than 100 yards by sea and 1,000 feet by air.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.