By Ed Lyman and Jean Souza

Trained responders working to free an entangled humpback whale off Kauai on Jan. 28, 2022. Photo courtesy of Mindy Huston (NOAA Fisheries Permit #18786-06)

An entangled humpback whale off Kaua‘i in late January has captured the public’s attention. At the time of this writing, several multi-agency efforts, with appropriate help from the community, have been mounted. These efforts have resulted in nearly 2,000 feet of line being removed, greatly increasing the animal’s chance of survival. However, gear remains on the animal, and it remains to be seen whether trained and authorized teams will be able to remove all the gear threatening this animal. Here is a rare look behind the scenes of an authorized large whale entanglement response.

Peak Season for Humpback Whales

January through March are the peak months for viewing humpback whales in Hawai‘i. The majority of humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean return to Hawai‘i to breed, give birth and nurse their young. It is one of the largest seasonal gatherings of humpback whales on the planet. Humpback whales prefer the nearshore waters of Hawai‘i to search for and find mates, and pregnant females prefer shallow embayments as birthing sites. For these reasons, spotting humpback whales in Hawai‘i is easy from shore and from boats.

Po‘ipū Whale

The entangled humpback whale fluking before a dive with the green telemetry buoy attached to the trailing gear on Jan. 16, 2022. Responders attached the tracking buoy to allow them to relocate the whale over multiple days. Photo courtesy of Tara Leota (NOAA Fisheries Permit #18786-06)

On Sunday, Jan. 16, a drone operator noticed an entangled humpback whale off Po‘ipū and reported it to the NOAA Fisheries Marine Wildlife Hotline. The animal was entangled in heavy gauge line up forward on the left side of its body, possibly involving the left pectoral flipper and its mouth. Hundreds of feet of line was trailing. The whale is emaciated and has rough-textured skin that appears discolored because of lots of whale lice, indicating poor health. This is not the normal, smooth, shiny black skin of a healthy whale.

Calls such as this one are directed to Ed Lyman on Maui. Ed is the Natural Resource Specialist with Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS). He has over 25 years of experience in large whale entanglement response. Almost 20 years ago, Ed, HIHWNMS, and NOAA Fisheries Service initiated the Hawai‘i large whale entanglement response.

Once the entanglement was determined to be life-threatening, a trained, authorized and well-equipped team of responders was alerted. This included leader Jamie Thomton (Level 3 responder) of NOAA Fisheries, Capt. Tara Leota, Dr. Mimi Olry of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and U.S. Coast Guard Station Kaua‘i, headed by Chief Timothy Elhajj.

Within 90 minutes after notification the team was underway, and arrived on-scene within two hours with the help of the drone operator. Jamie, Mimi and Capt. Tara were aboard her rigid hull inflatable Papio and pulled up alongside the then-docile whale. A detailed assessment of the animal was made, and a special buoy with a satellite tag was attached to the trailing gear. The tag would allow the team to track the whale’s location so that it could be intercepted later.

Nearly 2,000 feet of trailing line was accessed and safely removed. However, the line closer to the animal involved higher risk when removing and would require more experience, different tools, and therefore could not be immediately removed. The telemetry buoy on the remaining gear would allow a follow-up effort to hopefully remove the remaining gear entangling the whale.

The 2,000 feet of line removed from the whale is being analyzed to determine its source and how long it has entangled the whale. The information obtained from removed gear is used to address preventive measures and provide more insight into the circumstances of a whale’s entanglement.

Ni‘ihau and Back to Kaua‘i

NOAA and partners removed nearly 2,000 feet of heavy gauge line from the entangled humpback on Jan. 16, 2022. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries/Jamie Thomton (NOAA Fisheries Permit #18786-06)

Ed Lyman flew to Kaua‘i the next morning (Monday, Jan. 17). The USCG, Capt. Tara, Jamie, and drone operator James Begeman motored aboard the Papio to Ni‘ihau, where satellite fixes indicated the whale was on the north side of the island and headed south along the western coast. A tricky thing about using satellites for tracking is that there are long periods when there are no satellites overhead — no satellites means no position updates on the animal. Also, if satellites are low on the horizon, some the signals are weak and the reliability of the fixes are low.

The tracking buoy has both satellite and radio-based transmitters. The team picked up the VHF radio signal from the tag package. However, due to the long distance travelled and the animal moving rapidly away, and the limited daylight again, the team had to abort before reaching the animal. The team returned to Kaua‘i in the moonlight. Ed had to return to Maui the next morning.

On Wednesday, June 19, good satellite fixes indicated that the whale was off Kapa‘a headed north, counterclockwise around Kaua`i. USCG with Jamie and James and all the required gear left Nāwiliwili Harbor to attempt to relocate the whale for further disentanglement. The whale was spotted off Hanalei just before sunset by aerial support from Līhu‘e. The whale was there but the surface team was not able to relocate it due to long dive times and a fast-moving, unpredictable animal.

Pre-dawn satellite fixes on Thursday indicated the whale was off the eastern coast headed south, clockwise around the island. USCG with Jamie left Nāwiliwili Harbor early in the morning to again try to relocate the whale, which in the meantime had picked up speed and was nearing Makahuena Point in Po‘ipū. Within a short amount of time, it was at Ka‘iwa Bay on the western end of Po‘ipū headed to Waimea and to Pacific Missile Range Facility. As the whale was once again outrunning and/or outmaneuvering the team’s extensive efforts, the search was called off for the day.

Back to Ni‘ihau

On Friday, June 21, the whale was off Ni‘ihau again. Due to ocean conditions and other factors, no on-water response was mounted this day. Better conditions were hoped for in the next two days, either off Ni‘ihau or off Kaua‘i.

How Do We Disentangle a Large Whale?

So how do we disentangle an animal that could be more than 45-feet long and weigh more than 40 tons? For starters, all responses are boat-based. This means that no one gets into the water. This is a big safety point. Once the whale is spotted, its speed and dives are reduced through the use of inflated poly balls that are attached to the entanglement. Basically, adding gear to get gear off. This is a modification of an old whaling technique called kegging, except now it is being used to save whales, not kill them for their blubber and baleen.

Once the whale has slowed and stays near the surface, the team has a number of options on how to cut the lines. Much of it depends on how it is entangled. The cuts are strategically planned and executed. Specially designed and manufactured v-shaped cutting knives can be attached to long poles. An advanced level of training is required for this operation as the responder will be close to the animal. Calm ocean conditions are always preferred, which is a challenge on Kaua‘i where the lee is usually small.

Finding that One Whale in a Big Ocean

NOAA Fisheries response coordinator Jamie Thomton using Very High Frequency (VHF) line of sight tracking equipment to locate the telemetry buoy attached to the whale’s trailing entangled line on Jan. 17, 2022. Photo courtesy of NOAA/Ed Lyman (NOAA Fisheries Permit #18786-06)

Everyone who knows about this whale recognizes the dire outcome it faces if the team is not successful in freeing it of its man-made entanglement. If it could have shed the disentanglement on its own, it would have done it before. Its best chance of disentanglement is in Hawai‘i with this Kaua‘i team because the whales are closer to shore here than they are in their expansive northern Pacific feeding grounds off Alaska, Russia and British Columbia. The whale, even in its poor body condition, has been tracked at sustained speeds of three to six knots. Rarely has its speed been less than two knots.

Satellite tracking has its advantages but it also has some limitations, as we have seen with this whale. In addition to the lack of satellite passes at times, fixes may not be immediately available or, as mentioned, may not be accurate. If out of cell phone range, the satellite fixes will not be accessible, and only line of sight VHF telemetry can be used. Trips to Ni‘ihau typically means the team is out of communication for half a day or more and thus have no easy means of getting updates. The need for a satellite phone to check on satellite fixes of the buoy while out of normal cell range has become more evident.

As this article goes to print, it is not known what the outcome of the whale, and the human effort to disentangle it, will be. The effort thus far has been admirable, under very challenging conditions. But a word of caution to anyone contemplating jumping in with the whale in an attempt to save it: don’t do it.

These animals are large, powerful and not always predictable. Do not tie your vessel onto the whale in attempt to keep it at the surface, they can take you and your boat underwater. People worldwide have gotten seriously hurt or killed while trying to disentangle large whales. Do not let it be you.

Leave the response to those who have trained for this, are authorized, and who have the specialized gear, such as special cutting knives and underwater cameras.

How You Can Help

Early reporting is key to successful response efforts. We ask for the public’s help in following these steps if they spot an entangled whale:

  1. Call – Call the statewide NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at (888) 256-9840 to alert authorized responders. If you do not have cell service, call the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16.
  2. Monitor – If a response is possible, authorities may ask that you watch the animal from a safe — and legal — distance. Follow the 100-yard or close approach rule. This prohibits approaching humpback whales by any means (including with a drone) within 100 yards, and within 1,000 feet when operating an aircraft.
  3. Documetn – If possible, take photos and video of the animal and entanglement from a safe — and legal — distance. Again, remember the 100-yard or close approach rule.
  4. Wait – Rescue efforts should only be conducted by trained, authorized personnel. For your safety and the whale’s, do not attempt to free a whale on your own. Disentangling a large whale is dangerous. Removing trailing lines and buoys may diminish the chances of freeing the animal of all gear, leaving potentially lethal wraps of line still around the whale.

People can also help by providing funding that allows the teams to purchase equipment (such as knives, poles, drones or new tags) and maintain the equipment they already have. For instance, the string of efforts to free this animal of its life-threatening entanglement has illustrated the need for a satellite phone or similar communication devices to maintain communications offshore, better telemetry to track the animals, drones to better assess the animals and the impacts of the entanglement, and better carbon-fiber poles to reach out and cut the animals. The Kaua‘i team is likely to need a replacement grapple and telemetry kit, which involves the transmitter as well as the buoy that holds it. These items alone represent nearly $4,000.

As this article goes to print, there is also another reported entangled whale in Hawai‘i.

For more Info

For information about entanglements of marine life, its risks and response, visit NOAA Fisheries website: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/insight/entanglement-marine-life-risks-and-response

Those interested in learning how to properly assess, document and report critical entanglements to authorized and highly trained rescue teams, go to pacific-islands-training.whaledisentanglement.org/#/

It will not prepare or qualify you to perform or assist in the actual process of disentangling a whale.

For more information about humpback whales, visit the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary website:

https://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/

  • Ed Lyman is the Natural Resource Specialist with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. He serves as the Regional Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator under NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.
  • Jean Souza serves as the on-site manager of Kaua`i Ocean Discovery at Kukui Grove Center and is a Program Specialist with HIHWNMS. She is a member of the Kaua`i large whale entanglement response team. She can be contacted at Jean.Souza@noaa.gov

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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