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SeaWorld rescuers cut fishing nets wrapped around whale's tail

SeaWorld rescuers cut fishing nets wrapped around whale's tail
A humpback whale tangled in fishing gear swims about a mile off Newport Beach on Friday. (Courtesy Harbor Patrol)

Crews from SeaWorld on Saturday came to the aid of a humpback whale tangled in fishing nets off the coast of La Jolla after rescuers had tried to free it the day before off Newport Beach.

Rescue crews spent about three hours cutting snarled netting from the tail of a roughly 40,000-pound, 45-foot adult whale, said Keith Yip, SeaWorld curator of mammals.

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"It's a fairly risky, fairly dangerous operation," said Yip, who led the rescue effort with crew members Mike Hopkins and Eric Otjen.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department Harbor Patrol received a call about noon Friday that a whale had become caught in at least 250 feet of Dungeness crab nets and buoys. Crews on Harbor Patrol boats and whale-watching vessels took turns monitoring the mammal about a mile off the Balboa Pier while they waited for a team sent by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to arrive on an inflatable boat to untangle the whale.

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Rescuers were able to cut away some of the netting and attach a bright orange ball to tag the whale as it headed south. The effort was complicated by the whale repeatedly diving deep into the water and out of sight, authorities said.

Lifeguards in La Jolla saw the humpback off the coast at about 9 a.m. Saturday.

Yip said the fishing gear was covered in barnacles, indicating the whale had dragged it around for some time. Crews weren't able to remove some it across the whale's mouth and possibly embedded in its jaws.

Instead, they worked at the back, where some of the netting had snarled into a knot about 6 feet from the whale's flukes. As Yip and the others pulled their boat closer, the whale would dive and kept swimming at a pace of about 6 knots, Yip said.

"He was not very appreciative of us behind him," Yip said. He said the crew used knives to slice through the gear by hand.

"We helped the whale significantly," he said. "It's definitely not dragging anything. Hopefully it can free itself from the line in its mouth."

Yip said another humpback whale, wrapped in gill nets, was seen off Newport Beach on Saturday afternoon. Crews were unable to find that whale to provide assistance, according to Dave Anderson of Capt. Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari in Dana Point.

On Oct. 25, SeaWorld technicians and Coast Guard crews freed a 25- to 30-foot humpback from lobster trap lines. And last month, a humpback whale became ensnared in netting off Rancho Palos Verdes. Rescuers were unable to get close enough to attach a locating device and eventually lost track of the animal.

Authorities attribute an increase in such entanglements at least partly to unusually warm ocean temperatures that have brought more whales to the Southern California coast in search of food.

Repard writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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