A humpback whale was successfully rescued late last week after a team of experts freed the 40-foot mammal from fishing gear netting near Santa Cruz Island.
Before heroics began, the adult humpback happened to be spotted by passengers on a Condor Express whale-watching cruise at the tail end of a four-hour trip last Thursday afternoon.
Condor Express Capt. Dave Beezer told Noozhawk he was steering back to the Santa Barbara Harbor after an eventful sightseeing excursion when he and other crew members saw the struggling whale, not far from common feeding grounds in the Santa Barbara Channel.
While still able to breath at the ocean’s surface from its blowhole, the whale was stuck, entangled in fishing nets used to catch spot prawn, or giant shrimp.
The whale’s large right pectoral fin was pinned to its body, and rope was tied around its back and tail flukes, so the whale could only flop, making high-pitched distress noises.
Beezer said the whale most likely was pinned for a couple days before it was spotted; about two miles from where a local commercial fisherman laid traps that were legally anchored to the ocean floor 700 feet below.
“This whale was kind of hogtied,” he said. “The poor thing was in trouble.”
Beezer logged coordinates and returned early Friday morning with a Whale Entanglement Team (WET) to begin an eight-hour rescue after obtaining a federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) permit to complete the specialized mission.
The team used a 14-foot inflatable boat to get close enough to assess the best way to disentangle the whale, eventually deciding to use a “flying knife” — a special knife attached to a carbon-fiber pole that released when placed around the fishing line, Beezer said.
A rope attached to the knife was tethered to the inflatable boat, which used its motor engine to drive, cutting the mammal free.
Thousands of dolphins hovered nearby during the rescue, Beezer said, and the stressed-out whale whined with every breath.
Once free, the humpback lethargically swam before picking up speed and heading south toward Santa Cruz Island — a bit banged up but free of all rope and trailing lines.
“It’s a very, very high probability of survival,” Beezer said. “We’re really, really glad that we got it out. It was a huge effort that had to come together that quick.”
The local fisherman supplied rescuers with valuable information and even retained his gear, Beezer said.
Although the entanglement was unfortunate, he said, the way the whale was stuck made the rescue easier.
A similar liberation of an entangled adolescent humpback off the Goleta coastline last month took 17 days to complete because the whale was free-swimming.
“These things are incredibly random,” Beezer said, noting a growing humpback population. “You might go two years and not have any of these events and all of a sudden we’ve had two in two weeks. It’s just something that you have specialized teams for.”