Back-to-back humpback whales freed from tangled lines off California coast

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A juvenile humpback wrapped in heavy Dungeness crab gear that left a gaping laceration around its mid-section has a second chance at life thanks to some expert work by officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a rescue team from San Diego SeaWorld.

The whale was first spotted on Sunday, Sept. 25, by a private boater off Carlsbad, who alerted rescue teams at SeaWorld. SeaWorld provided NOAA’s marine mammal stranding team with documentation of the 30-foot juvenile whale, including photos of where the struggling animal was entangled.

When NOAA teams responded the next day, the whale had only traveled a few miles south and was found again off San Elijo State Beach. Lifeguards, state parks officials and harbor patrol boats had kept watch over the animal to make sure it didn’t disappear.

Justin Viezbicke, NOAA’s California marine mammal stranding coordinator, and Justin Greenman, the agency’s assistant coordinator, were aboard their inflatable rescue boat along with a second team from SeaWorld.

Getting close to the tired and weakened whale, “we saw the one line we thought would remove it all,” Viezbicke said. “It took us three attempts. The third time, I got the knife on the line and was able to cut it loose.”

Teams removed about 300 feet of line and five buoys off the whale. The gear came from the Dungeness crab fishery in Oregon so the whale was likely bound up in it for several months, Viezbicke said.

The tangle wound between the dorsal fin and the blowhole and there was a huge laceration on the whale’s side where the lines were digging in and were weighted down, he said.

“This was one of those situations where we got somewhat lucky,” Viezbicke said. “Sometimes it takes several days and we’re not always successful.”

Last year there were 27 confirmed entanglements off the West Coast. Of those, teams responded to 19 whales, successfully removing the tangles of gear from three and at least part of the lines from another four.  The rest were unsuccessful attempts.

Officials say they started to see higher numbers of entanglements beginning in 2014, with the peak years from 2015 to 2018.

Humpbacks have been the most reported entangled. In 2021, there were 17. Others trapped in gear included four gray whales, two transient killer whales, one fin whale, one minke whale, and two unidentified whales.



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