A rare attempt to free a blue whale tangled in crab fishing lines off the coast of California ended in failure Tuesday when rescuers were unable to locate the creature after removing a tracking buoy the night before.
"We lost him," said Captain Dave Anderson, a rescue effort organizer and owner of Dana Point-based Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari. "It breaks my heart to see a whale like that. It's so hard when you're so close to helping, we were just inches away."
The whale was first spotted Monday dragging a pair of fishing lines in its wake. Anderson said markings on the lines revealed that the crab traps had been set in Morro Bay, and probably weighed 100 to 300 pounds. The trap lines, which appeared to stretch some 500 feet, were digging into the whale's tail, or flukes, and causing it to become exhausted through stress and sheer effort, he said.
"If this whale isn't helped I don't think it can last. I would say it's probably going to be a month ... then it could die," he said.
On Monday, crews of multiple boats spent hours attempting to untangle the whale as they chugged slowly south, some two or three miles off the coast of Orange County.
Rescuers used a 30-foot pole to snare lines floating behind the animal, but were unable to reach the submerged portions of line that were towing the the crab traps far below the ocean's surface.
Every time rescuers approached, the whale would dive, Anderson said. When it did resurface to breath, it was only for a few seconds, and its tangled tail always remained some 25 feet below the water line.
The would-be rescuers worked from aboard ships and did not enter the water out of safety concerns.
"I mean, he's the biggest animal on Earth. They're not intimidated by anything," Anderson said of the whale. "He was being fairly cooperative overall, but there's a fair risk of him deciding he doesn't want us there. When he decides he doesn't want you there, he wins."
The whale swam about 15 miles from 10 a.m. to sunset and was headed toward San Diego. Rescuers had attached a telemetry buoy to the animal during the day, in order to track him, but had to detach it at Monday night so they wouldn't lose it if the whale swam off, said Michael Milstein of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
On Tuesday, rescue teams motored out to the area once again but the trap-bound whale was nowhere to be seen.
"NOAA has alerted San Diego, but the whale could be anywhere," read a post on the Whale Safari Facebook page.
Staff writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.
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1:39 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the failed rescue attempts.
8:06 a.m.: This article has been updated with details of Monday's rescue attempt.