Men and equipment from two U.S. Navy warships in the Gulf of Oman were called into action to mount a daring and ultimately successful four-hour rescue operation.
For a whale--a 40-foot, 30-ton female sperm whale enmeshed in several hundred feet of nylon fishing net.
"In my years of naval service, I have been called upon to perform many tasks," said Capt. Clinton J. Coneway, commander of the guided missile cruiser Truxtun, one of the ships involved in the operation. "But nothing like this."
The Sunday rescue enlivened an otherwise dull week in the Persian Gulf region, where 28 U.S. warships are on duty to protect 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers re-registered as American vessels. The charitable act amid the controversial escort operation also provided the Navy with an irresistible public relations opportunity that it enthusiastically shared with the gulf-based U.S. press pool.
The whale tale, pieced together from dispatches from Navy anti-submarine helicopter pilots and crewmen from the Truxtun and the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Enterprise, unfolded as follows:
An anti-submarine helicopter from the Enterprise, on patrol in the Gulf of Oman--known here by its acronym "The Goo"--radioed the Truxtun that it had spotted an exhausted whale entangled in more than 400 feet of nylon gill net used by fishermen in the area.
The San Diego-based Truxtun, about 30 miles away, responded.
The cruiser found the whale floating listlessly on the surface, completely wrapped in a net that trailed hundreds of feet behind it.
Snaring the net with grappling hooks, Truxtun's "whale rescue team" eased the mammal alongside the ship, a Navy dispatch said.
Then, Cmdr. Craig Cowen of San Diego, the Truxtun's operations officer, sent first one enlisted man, then another over the side to try to cut the whale free.
With most of the net hacked away, a ship's boat was lowered with more swimmers. They completed the job, leaving only a strand of the fishing net trailing behind the whale, caught between its teeth "like dental floss," as it swam away, the Navy said.
"Through the ordeal, the whale made no attempts to harm the swimmers. It seemed she knew that they were trying to help," Coneway said.
"All in all, it was a most unusual and rewarding way to spend a Sunday afternoon," he added. "Jacques Cousteau would be proud."