Wednesday, October 7 , 2015, 2:20 pm | Fair 78º

Whale Entangled in Fishing Line the Focus of Dramatic Rescue Off Goleta

Experts come to the aid of the adolescent humpback, which suffered life-threatening injuries after getting caught up in gear more than two weeks ago

Crews work near Goleta to free a humpback whale that had become entangled in fishing gear. The animal was finally freed Thursday after being tracked for several weeks.
Crews work near Goleta to free a humpback whale that had become entangled in fishing gear. The animal was finally freed Thursday after being tracked for several weeks.  (NOAA photo via MMHSRP Permit 932-1489)

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

On Thursday evening as the sun set over the Pacific, an extraordinary rescue was taking place off the Goleta coastline.

An adolescent humpback whale had suffered deep wounds and was gravely injured after it had become entangled in fishing line.

At the end of it was a 70-pound crab pot, a trap used by commercial fishermen to catch the crustaceans, and the drag from both had cut deeply into its body.

The whale had become entangled in the line somewhere near Crescent City more than two weeks ago, and had traveled more than 600 nautical miles to end up in the Santa Barbara Channel.

A team of experts located the whale at about 7 p.m. on Thursday about five miles off the Santa Barbara County coast and worked to free it.

One of those experts was Pieter Folkens, who spoke with Noozhawk about the rescue on Friday.

He's part of the Whale Entanglement Team, a fancy name for a group of volunteers who perform a sort of search-and-rescue function for marine mammals.

The group is affiliated with many conservation groups, and many times, people in the group will get a call and have to leave work to go check out a report of an entangled marine mammal.

Folkens is one of three people on the West Coast who have the type of federal permit needed to disentangle the whale, and had been called out when the animal was first spotted by a whale-watching boat near Monterey Bay on April 27.

Over the next 18 days, a network of volunteers and organizations in the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program worked together to rescue the animal.

When it was first spotted, the animal was moving very slowly trailing line and a buoy, and seemed stressed. It had suffered a life-threatening injury.

Folkens and the team responded, and before night fell, they were able to attach a satellite tag to the animal and take photos and videos. The team was able to remove the crab pot and some of the line, and the hope was that the rest of the entanglement would slip off since the whale could swim more freely.

A rope tied to fishing gear had cut deeply into the tail of a humpback whale that was rescued Thursday offshore from Goleta. (NOAA photo via MMHSRP Permit 932-1489)

But that didn't happen, and the team watched the whale's movements by satellite, and saw it moving farther offshore, past Point Sur.

The whale continued toward Morro Bay, where the team decided to attempt a response, but strong winds and steep seas put the response on hold.

Over the next several days, the whale was too far offshore and the winds too high to attempt to reach it. It moved farther and farther south, past Point Arguello, and finally ended up in the Santa Barbara Channel on May 10.
The whale turned around and stayed between Santa Cruz Island and the city of Santa Barbara, and on Thursday, the teams attempted a rescue at Goleta Point.
The WET team, Sea World Rescue and a coordinator from NOAA connected with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary for the use of its 62-foot research vessel, the Shearwater.

A vast group of organizations including the NOAA Fisheries and West Coast Region and Protected Resources Division, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and a handful of commercial operations such as Condor Express provided support for the rescue as well.

On Thursday, the responders found that the weight of the crab pot on the whale's tail had caused the line to cut deeply into the animal.

Keith Yipp, a curator of mammals for Sea World, was on the rescue. Last year, Yip's organization rescued 400 marine mammals, and was able to release about 65 percent of them.

Like Folkens, Yip is one of three people on the West Coast who has a permit from NOAA's fisheries to disentangle whales and studied marine biology at UCSB, just a few miles from where the whale was freed.

"It was a phenomenal experience," he said of Thursday's rescue. "These animals would perish if we didn't intervene. It wasn't their fault," he said, noting that even though the fishing gear was legal, sometimes animals and human fishing activities collide for the worst.

An admitted adrenaline junkie, Yip worked with several others within a few feet of the animal to untangle it.

Watching the humpback swim away, Yip said he felt good about its chances of survival.

He's been working with marine mammals for nearly three decades and has seen many injuries.

"I really firmly believe this animal can heal and recover," he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Crews work to free a humpback whale that had become entangled in fishing gear. (NOAA photo via MMHSRP Permit 932-1489)

comments powered by Disqus

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.


Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.