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Young Whale Trapped In Fishing Line Freed By Emergency Rescuers

<p> <em>Courtesy of E. Lyman - NOAA HIHWNMS MMHSRP </em><br><em>permit # 932-1905</em> </p>

Lifeguards spotted a young swimmer in trouble near a Maui beach last Wednesday, but he wasn't your average bather caught in the surf - he was a 25-foot-long humpback whale. The yearling whale seemed to cruise by with only his front flippers, a tough fishing line encircling his tail and shark bites on one fluke. The lifeguards, keeping a safe distance on jet skis, knew who to call: a group of Hawaiian biologists and officials who expertly disentangle caught whales.

Swift and precise, the rescuers are a bit like "a volunteer fire department," Ed Lyman, who coordinates the large animal emergency response of Maui's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Dodo. The team is a joint effort between several NOAA divisions - including NOAA Fisheries, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA Corps - as well as the Hawaii Wildlife Fund and Maui police.

(Credit: J. Moore/NOAA)

To save whales, Lyman and other responders hurry to a boat loaded with tailor-made gear. (Lyman is careful to emphasize that even government responders require a permit to approach the endangered whales.) Each rescue is a race to find the whales before they disappear. Even for a 30-ton animal, Lyman pointed out, the ocean is a big place.

If the whale is caught in a net or softer fishing gear, the responders zoom close to the trailing line to attach large plastic buoys. It's a technique born out of the 1800s, adopted from whaling ships, of all things. Similar to a Nantucket sleigh ride of "Moby Dick" lore (though there are no harpoons involved), the goal is to tucker out a whale so humans can get close. Whales are incredibly strong - capable of traveling the 2,500 miles down from Alaska entangled in gear - so it may take several plastic balls stuck on the end of the gear before a whale decides to rest at the surface. With buoys attached, too, the offending gear won't sink to ensnare other animals.

(Credit: J. Moore/NOAA)

This is only one of the reasons why Lyman warns amateur rescuers to keep away from whales. Boaters equipped with knives and snorkeling outfits, Lyman said, might be tempted to "get close to the cut trailing gear."

That would be a mistake. Not only are snorkelers endangering their own lives, but most are able to cut off only the loose line, rather than the bit wrapped fast around the whale tails. It's harder for Lyman to find these whales, and impossible to add the buoys.

Even though this whale was trailing fishing line, his rescue wasn't so easy - he was wrapped in tough, heavy monofilament. With the longline digging into the whale's skin, Lyman and his colleagues couldn't risk adding buoys on the end of the hapless whale. (Imagine the garrote wire that knocks off Luca Brasi in "The Godfather.") Longline, moreover, is studded with fishing hooks, which the rescuers couldn't grab, especially not with a giant animal at the other end.

(Credit: E. Lyman/NOAA)

After catching the trailing gear with a grappling hook, Lyman and the team opted for another tool in their arsenal: a 15-foot-long pole tipped with a bent knife that's sharp on the inside of the blade but dull on the outer edge. The attempt to cut the line took a careful approach. It worked - the rescuers removed about 98 percent of the fishing gear. "I like it when it goes well," Lyman said. "And it did." And the odds are good that a whale, once free of a net, will recover.

(Credit: E. Zang/NOAA)

Lyman emphasized he's not out to condemn most fishermen. In fact, he applauds their efforts to work alongside whales. "Fisherman are happy to avoid catching whales," he said, and they keep logs of the whales they spot. Some also now employ devices called pingers, which emit a sound to warn whales that nets are nearby. The pingers have been successful with warding off toothed whales, though there's some concern about their effectiveness with humpbacks and other baleen whales.

Though population estimates are rough, NOAA believes that humpback whales are increasing in numbers. Fishing gear remains a threat, and removing it all is tough - between 2002 and 2013, Hawaiian rescuers cleared 7,000 feet of line from 17 whales.

Everyone cares about the animals, Lyman said. "Humpback whales are an iconic species around Hawaii."