MAALAEA - The search for three dangerously entangled humpback whales over the last two weeks is ongoing as federal authorities asked for help Friday in locating the animals swimming among thousands of other whales spread out across miles of ocean.
"It's a needle in a haystack, I know," said Ed Lyman, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mammal response manager for Maui. "We rely on the Coast Guard, marine biologists, researchers, people on the shore, the tour boats and, of course, fishermen.
"They are the foundation of the rescue mission, which is kinda cool because it's so community orientated. It's also a really dangerous business, so never try to do this. One quick movement by these giant whales, and, well, you know."
An entangled whale swims off Maui on Thursday. Attempts to free it from the lines were unsuccessful.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration photo
None of the potentially injured whales had been seen Friday. But Thursday, Lyman spent hours next to one six miles south of Maalaea Harbor before it disappeared into choppy waters after sunset.
"We tried all day, so we gave it our best shot," Lyman said. "It's a bad entanglement, not something it's likely to get out of on its own. Sometimes they are able to, though. It happens."
Lyman said he and his colleagues have been concentrating on finding and assisting the three whales found in the heart of NOAA's whale sanctuary. Nine entangled whales have been reported since the migration season began in November, he said, some hundreds of miles from Maui.
In 18 years, however, Lyman said he's freed or helped release at least 50 of the endangered species.
"It's been a frustrating season so far, but often that's how it works," he said, adding that, with such a vast ocean for them to disappear into, "it's a shell game."
On Thursday, visitors aboard the scuba charter Maui Diamond 2 spotted the troubled whale about 8 a.m. and called the U.S. Coast Guard with its 45-foot response boat. Lyman said he arrived an hour later in NOAA's 36-foot boat.
He'd spent the entire day before chasing a different whale off West Oahu.
The Oahu whale was immature, about 30 feet long. It had different gauge lines on it and pulled along several buoys with little red flags, Lyman said.
An entangled whale off Kauai was discovered two weeks ago by people on the shore. It's a juvenile, approximately 35 feet long. Lyman said he didn't see that whale and didn't know what ensnared it, but the Kauai whale pulled two red buoys on the right flipper.
The Maui whale had lines and two red balloon buoys behind it. It was at least 45 feet long and possibly female because males lingered nearby, Lyman said.
A Coast Guard auxiliary aircraft also followed the whale for some time, said Eric Roberts, 14th Coast Guard District marine mammal response manager.
Lyman said he thought the whales were caught up in fishing lines.
NOAA and Coast Guard specialists tried Thursday to tag the whale with a tracking device, he said, but they couldn't tag it because it wasn't dragging enough detritus.
The process of getting a whale untangled involves a new take on the age-old whaling practice of kegging to slow down the whale and prevent it from diving, Lyman said. Instead of using harpoons with ropes and numerous empty casks, today they use grappling hooks on the entanglement with several large buoys, Lyman said.
A whale also can travel a mile underwater in 10 minutes. A mature whale can swim unseen for nearly an hour, Lyman said.
Once Lyman's team has a whale hopefully stopped, he uses a portable 15-foot inflatable rubber Navy SEAL-like boat with a small outboard engine that he pulls out of the water as he carefully cuts away the lines with hooked blade.
NOAA oversees the 1,370-square-mile Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, where roughly 12,000 whales come from Alaskan waters each winter and spring to mate and care for their young. Most of the whale haven is between the islands.
"The search right now is relying heavily on the tourism industry," Lyman said. "For us to be out in the boat going back and forth wouldn't be prudent. The animal could be anywhere, and then if it's spotted, let's say in Oahu, we have to motor back and then get to the airport."
To report a whale in distress, call NOAA at (888) 256-9840. Boaters can contact the Coast Guard on radio Channel 16.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.