A NOAA-led team of trained responders freed an entangled adult female humpback whale on Monday, Feb. 14, outside Lahaina Harbor on Maui.
The adult female, accompanied by her calf and a male escort humpback, had a tight wrap of moderate gauge line wrapped around her head in front of her pectoral flippers, according to a joint statement from NOAA Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA Fisheries. The wrap also included a large bundle of marine debris.
The multi-agency Pacific Islands Large Whale Entanglement Response Team mounted an authorized response. It took responders approximately six hours to free the animal from more than 550 feet of measurable line. Since it was wrapped tightly around the whale’s head, officials say, it posed a significant threat to the animal.
“Tight wraps on the head also pose danger to the response team, because of the necessity to closely approach the animal,” NOAA stated.
Once freed, the mother and her calf went into resting behavior, with the calf tucking under the mother’s chin. The successful response increased the survival chances for both the mother and her calf.
The debris included a dozen different types of lines and netting, with at least 30 feet of thick line estimated at greater than one-and-half-inch in diameter. While the gear sank out of reach and couldn’t be recovered, responders obtained critical documentation of the removed gear to determine its possible origins.
The whale was first reported on Feb. 12 by tour vessel Napali Explorer III, with a re-sighting on Feb. 14 by another tour vessel, Trilogy V. The animal was in fair-to-good condition, but the tight wrap had resulted in line scars near her mouth line. The entanglement posed a significant threat to the mother and her calf, and was deemed life-threatening.
The response team included Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, the Ultimate Whale Watch dedicated and trained response team, the U.S. Coast Guard from Station Maui, NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, NOAA Corps, Cardinal Point Captains, and University of Hawaʻii at Mānoa – Marine Mammal Research Program. Shoreside support was provided by NOAA Fisheries and the state of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources. The sanctuary’s research and response vessel, Koholā, acted as the primary approach vessel, while patrol vessels from the USCG and OLE provided safety and support. MMRP provided monitoring and aerial assessment support.
Mariners are asked to keep a lookout for whales in distress, but not to approach closely or attempt to assist them. Only trained and well-equipped responders that are authorized under a Marine Mammal Protection Act/Endangered Species Act permit issued to NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP)are permitted to assist entangled whales and other marine mammals.
“Immediately reporting an entangled or otherwise injured or distressed whale, is the best way to help the animal,” officials say.
If you see an injured or entangled marine mammal, keep a safe and legal distance and call the statewide NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at 888-256-9840 or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 immediately. If you are reporting a vessel coming too close to a whale, call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at 800-853-1964 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional guidelines and safety tips can be found at here. It is illegal to approach a humpback whale closer than 100 yards by any means by sea or drone and closer than 1,000 feet by aircraft.