A rescue team working on Christmas Day removed rope and debris from an entangled humpback whale off West Maui.
Whale expert Ed Lyman of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary said he believed the team freed the whale of most or all of the material it was dragging, which included an anchor; but that he could not be sure because he didn't get a chance to look under the animal before it swam away.
"We got most of the gear off, but we cannot be 100 percent certain we got all the gear off," he said Saturday.
Tour boats reported spotting a distressed whale off Launiupoko State Wayside Park around 12:15 p.m. Christmas Day, and initially believed the animal had been hurt by a boat because it appeared to be having trouble swimming, he said.
When the rescue team arrived in the sanctuary's 36-foot boat Hihimanu, it discovered the whale was actually tangled in rope, with a wound on its tail where the rope was cutting into it.
An assessment found 60 to 70 feet of rope were trailing behind the whale, along with an anchor and a tangle of gear. Lyman described the entanglement as "life threatening."
After failed attempts to cut the rope using a knife on a long pole, the team launched a 17-foot inflatable boat to get closer to the animal, Lyman said.
"We made some approaches to the whale and threw a grapple to get hold of that trailing line," he said.
The team pulled up a few feet behind the whale's tail and attempted again to remove the line, making two cuts in the rope on top and four cuts under the tail.
After the team made its last cut at 5:30 p.m., "the whale swam rapidly away, literally into the sunset," Lyman said.
The whale now "has a much better chance of survival," he said.
But since the team couldn't verify whether all the ropes had been removed, he asked tour operators to continue to keep a lookout for it.
"It would be nice to get another look at this whale," he said.
In addition to the sanctuary, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Fisheries Service participated in the rescue, with support from the U.S. Coast Guard. Lyman also said the whale watch tour companies played an important role by reporting the whale and staying with it until the rescue team arrived.
"They're our eyes out there," he said.
Anyone who sees an injured, distressed or entangled whale can report it by calling (888) 256-9840.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.