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Effort to Save Whale Tangled in Net Called Off After It Vanishes

Times Staff Writer

An intensive search was halted Thursday after a team of biologists failed to relocate a young whale which had become ensnared in a fisherman’s gill net off Dana Point. They said they feared that it may be dead.

The trapped California gray whale was spotted about 7:30 a.m. Thursday off Newport Beach’s Balboa Pier. By the time rescuers arrived a short time later, the animal had disappeared. Several boatloads of divers, biologists and local marine enthusiasts--along with a television station’s helicopter--scoured the coastline between Newport and Huntington Beach in vain.

By midday, frustrated rescuers suspended the search, but said they would resume rescue efforts if the whale is spotted in the next few days. They held out little hope, however, that the whale could survive for long with the net wrapped around its body.

“If we don’t get it out, I don’t think it will last too long,” said Tom Lewis, co-director of the Whale Rescue Unit, a Long Beach-based volunteer group that tries to rescue California gray whales that become entangled in gill nets as they migrate to and from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

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Lewis added that the nets eventually sink as they continue to pick up more and more debris, taking the whales down with them. The net usually also wraps tighter and tighter around the animal as it tries to free itself, he said.

About 10 to 15 whales are known to become trapped in the nets and die during each migratory journey, Lewis said. Although the number is insignificant compared to the California gray whales’ estimated total population of 21,000, Lewis said the gill net deaths are slow and painful.

The yearling whale spotted off Orange County this week was tangled in the net and bleeding, he said. The chain-mesh material was wrapped around the whale’s flukes, or tail, and about 75 feet of the net was trailing behind.

The whale, about 25 feet long and weighing about 10 tons, was first seen floundering Tuesday off Dana Point. On Wednesday, Lewis and other divers from the Whale Rescue Unit trailed the hapless animal as it swam slowly north. After catching up to it off Laguna Beach’s Emerald Bay, divers tried unsuccessfully to pull the net free.

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The divers, assisted by a 50-foot research vessel on loan from an Orange County company, tried to tire the animal enough so they could move in and cut the nets without panicking it. To do this, Lewis said the divers attached line between the net and the research vessel, forcing the whale to pull the large boat.

But the whale began diving to get away. As dusk approached Wednesday, Lewis said, it became too dark to continue. Before leaving for the night, however, the rescuers attached a yellow buoy to the net so that it could be easily spotted the next morning.

The search for the animal began again at 6 a.m. Thursday. About 1 1/2 hours later, the whale was sighted off the Balboa Pier but had disappeared by the time rescuers converged on the area. The search was halted at 1:30 p.m., when it became apparent that the animal was nowhere to be found, according to Rick Ware, a Whale Rescue Unit biologist from Sunset Beach.

After abandoning the search, Ware said that the Whale Rescue Unit alerted lifeguards between Newport Beach and Los Angeles to be on the lookout for the whale. He also asks that anyone spotting a whale behaving strangely--such as lifting its head out of the water to breathe instead of using its blowhole--to call the Whale Rescue Unit hot line. That number is (800) 243-3383.

If the whale is spotted, Ware said, the rescue effort will resume.


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