By Jack Williams
This distressing footage shows the incredible lengths Hawaiian rescuers go to every year in order to assess and disentangle humpback whales.
Since 2002, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary has been required to free more than 20 large whales, removing more than 9,500 feet of line in the process.
As well as fishing gear, the likes anchor lines, scientific apparatus, marine debris and moorings are responsible for such issues.
An important tool rescuers use is a flying knife – a hardened steel blade that is configured into a hook, allowing the outside surface to be dull, so that rescuers can cut the likes of netting from the giant mammals’ bodies.
One of the most difficult parts of the job, Ed Lyman, a large whale entanglement response coordinator, said, is that the team are dealing with such big animals that are still mobile and yet unaware that humans are there to help.
Therefore, responders are required to be highly trained, as there is also a chance that, when they enter the water to save such large mammals, they, too, may become entangled.
The team advise the public that, if they do see an entangled whale, they should not try and free the animal themselves, but call their local response hotline.
From there, Ed added, there are a number of other important roles people can play.
He said: “If possible, and from a safe and legal distance, get photographs or video of the animal and the entanglement – including the condition of the animal, how the animal is entangled, and the identifying features of the gear.
“If a response is to be mounted by an authorized team, it is important to monitor the animal – again, from a safe and legal distance – until the team arrives.
“A large whale ends up being a large needle in a very large haystack – the North Pacific Ocean.”
Since December 2017, the team have mounted more than 20 on-water responses.
From there, they assess the likes of whether the entanglement is life-threatening; the surrounding conditions; and what resources and expertise are needed.
For these reasons, not all responses require freeing the animal from debris.
Instead, the team free some whales that are in life-threatening entanglements, maintain public safety, and, most importantly, garner information from the effort as to reduce the threat of entanglement for many animals in to the future.
Ed said: “The focus is not just on cutting whales free, and for that reason we have stopped calling it ‘disentanglement’ and instead refer to the effort as ‘entanglement response.’
NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1992 to protect humpback whales and their habitat in Hawaii.
The sanctuary emphasizes research, education and community-based resource protection in a diverse set of conservation programs across the state.
Ed said: “They are big animals, very likely still mobile, out in the open ocean, and that don’t realize you are there to help.
“Additionally, there is gear, much of it under load that poses its own risks – think Ahab and Moby Dick.
“Lastly, there can be a great deal of emotion involved in the efforts to free these animals, which can also pose risks and make a response more challenging.”