Saving the whales

19th-century hunting techniques now used to help, not kill humpbacks

Ed Lyman, large whale entanglement response coordinator with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, displays a flying knife. The cutting tool is serrated on its inside edge, making it suited to removing netting or debris from an entangled whale. The Maui News MATTHEW THAYER photo

MAALAEA — To save whales tangled in netting and debris, rescuers take a page right out of the 1850s whale-hunting playbook.

To catch and kill the animals, 19th-century whalers would harpoon the creatures, add a barrel to the line to slow and force them to surface. Then they’d lance captured whales and let them bleed out.

Now, rescuers follow similar but nonviolent steps — tossing a hook to catch the debris on a whale, adding a buoy to slow it and using a knife rigged on a pole to cut away entangled fishing gear or other marine debris. Instead of a barrel of oil, their reward is watching the whale swim free.

“We stole it from whalers in the 1850s,” said Ed Lyman, large whale entanglement response coordinator with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. “Here we are using their technique to actually save whales.”

On Tuesday, Lyman joined 16 members of a U.S. Coast Guard crew as they bobbed through the blue waters of Maalaea Bay looking for humpbacks. The patrol was part of Operation Kohola Guardian, a program to protect both animals and oceangoers. (Kohola means whale in Hawaiian.) The effort includes the Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. They are 911 responders for whales in distress.

Crew members from U.S. Coast Guard Station Maui prepare to transfer passengers to the Oahu-based cutter Galveston Island on Tuesday morning. The crew and Ed Lyman, large whale entanglement response coordinator with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, were taking part in a patrol that’s part of Operation Kohola Guardian, a program to protect both the massive marine mammals and oceangoers. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The operation began in 2009 after the Coast Guard started requiring annual law enforcement patrols aimed at protecting marine life, according to spokeswoman Petty Officer 2nd Class Melissa McKenzie. Every year, the agencies train together and patrol the waters around the Hawaiian Islands during whale season.

“Kohola Guardian allows us to work very closely with our state and federal partners in the protection of the whales,” said Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Ball, commanding officer of the Oahu-based cutter Galveston Island that was on patrol Tuesday. “The other side of that is protection of the mariners. We want to allow them the opportunity of viewing the whales in their natural habitat and to do that safely.”

Trying to free a 40-ton whale from thick netting is dangerous business, which is why it’s important for people to call for professional help, Lyman said.

“People want to help,” Lyman said. “They care so much for the animals. I’ve seen people jump into the water with the knife essentially between the teeth, wanting to cut the whale free. It does not work out well.”

When a call comes in, rescue crews hurry on scene and start the “kegging” process copied from the whalers. They throw out a grapple, a four-pronged hook that catches the material wrapped around the whale. A buoy attached to the rope will get the animal to surface and add some drag that could help the whale pull the netting off itself. Crews also attach tracking devices in case the whale slips away. If it’s early enough in the day, they can try to cut the whale free.

A four-pronged grappling hook catches material wrapped around a whale and extends a rope to which a buoy is attached. The buoy slows a distressed whale and keeps it near the surface — a process called “kegging.” The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Aboard the Galveston Island, Lyman unrolled a green canvas bag of oddly shaped knives, the tools of the whale rescue trade. There’s the flying knife, a checkmark-shaped knife that’s serrated on the inside and is useful for cutting gear off a whale’s head or flipper. There’s the Spyderco whale rescue blade, a slightly curved, serrated knife that’s handy for netting, and the calf knife, a hooked blade made especially for freeing baby whales.

Entangled calves are a challenge. Shielded by their mothers, they’re often difficult to reach. And fed by a steady diet of milk that’s 50 percent fat, the calves are growing so quickly that “the flesh envelops the line” wrapped tightly around their bodies.

“Literally within a day or two, the line is inset in their skin,” Lyman said. “We thought it was cutting (their skin). But the ones we cut free, the line just exploded off the calf.”

Disentangling can take several hours if the rope is thick and the whale is scared. Rescue crews must often alternate between sawing rope and letting the whale swim away if it starts to thrash.

“The nice thing about whales is they don’t go in reverse,” Lyman said.

Ed Lyman, large whale entanglement response coordinator with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, discusses using 19th-century whale-hunting technology to free and save the mammals today. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Gear removed from whales in Hawaiian waters has come from as far as the Bering Sea. And it’s not just fishing equipment, but anchor lines, moorings and all kinds of marine debris. Chief Ekahi Lee, officer-in-charge at the Coast Guard Maui Station, said gear adrift is not always due to neglect.

“When fishing boats go out, some of these long-liners go out hundreds of miles and they come across bad weather, gear does come off the boat,” Lee said.

Around 2009 or 2010, Lee helped disentangle a whale for the first time. The 40-foot whale had gotten caught in some fishing gear in the Kaiwi Channel, about 20 miles offshore, and NOAA and the Coast Guard were called in. Conditions were perfect: no wind, no waves and the whale was calm. After several hours of chasing and cutting rope, the animal finally broke free.

“It was cool to see everything just fall into place,” Lee said. “We train to rescue people, and during this time frame of our operation, we train to go and rescue whales. . . . It was cool to put it together and to see success.”

Law enforcement is also part of Kohola Guardian, making sure that people are staying at least 100 yards away from whales. Ball said he’s noticed boats “taking really good caution” around the animals. The Coast Guard’s presence doesn’t hurt either.

A humpback whale slaps its tail Tuesday morning in waters off Maui. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“Having the cutter out here . . . definitely provides more visibility in areas like the triangle, where you have charters and folks coming out of various ports,” Ball said. “We’re able to kind of sit in the center, and I think it’s just a reminder.”

This season, no whale entanglements have been reported, which Lyman said is “mind-boggling.” In the past, boaters, interisland planes and even people watching from high-rises have reported entangled whales. Simply spotting the distressed creatures helps “a great deal.”

“At 45 feet long, they’re still essentially a big needle in a very big haystack,” Lyman said. “We lose them. So by monitoring the animal, you can let us get out to it and respond.”

Ultimately, disentangling whales is just a temporary solution.

“It’s not about how many whales you save,” Lyman said. “Not that that’s not important. We’ve got to prevent it from happening. You’ve got to get ahead of the curve. Then none of us have to go out and cut a whale free.”

He encouraged people to continue reporting distressed whales so that experts can figure out where gear is coming from and how whales are getting entangled. He also advised people to “only use what you need” in the water while fishing or doing other ocean activities.

To report a marine mammal in distress, call the NOAA hotline at (888) 256-9840 or hail the Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. For more information on humpbacks, visit

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at