Gray whale is swimming free after rescuers cut loose massive bundle of netting

Gray whale is swimming free after rescuers cut loose massive bundle of netting

When Keith Yip got word Wednesday, June 15, that a 28-foot juvenile gray whale tangled up in gillnets had been spotted off Laguna Beach and was being monitored by a team of boats, he scrambled his rescue crew from San Diego.

If boats could keep track of the whale, it meant they might have a chance to help. The whale would likely survive if the netting cutting into its skin could be removed.

If not, it could mean a slow and painful death if the whale started not being able to feed or swim.

After a three-hour effort on the water two miles off the Dana Point Harbor jetty, rescuers had cut through the massive bundle of netting and the animal swam free, heading north at 4 knots.

In the last five years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported eight whales – five grays and three humpback whales – partially freed by rescue crews from fishing gear. Only one other whale, a Minke off the coast of San Diego, was completely cut loose in 2021.

“I’m just so grateful to be part of an experience where so many groups came together to save a life,” said Yip, who works in San Diego with SeaWorld and is certified by NOAA to go out and cut these whales free. In 30 years, he has helped free at least 100, he said. “This was a 100% success, and often it just happens 25% of the time.”

The whale was first spotted slowly swimming off Aliso Beach at 10:18 am Wednesday by Capt. Brian Woolley aboard the Sum Fun, a Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching boat loaded with kids in a fishing summer camp. The whale has previously been spotted off Monterrey and Redondo Beach.

“I saw a little poof and thought it was weird that a gray whale was still here in June,” Woolley said. “Then, I remembered the email about being on the lookout for an entangled whale.”

He alerted NOAA and stayed with the whale until another Dana Wharf boat could take over. NOAA officials have made it clear to charter operators that when a whale is in distress, those who are able should monitor it until rescue teams arrive. Boats from Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari, SeaTow and Newport Coastal Adventure, as well as private boaters, jumped in to help.

“These guys were huge,” Yip said. “Staying on the whale, that’s such an important part. Often a whale is spotted, but then it disappears.”

By about 1 pm, Yip had met up at the Dana Point Harbor with a team from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach and with Capt. Dave Anderson, who also has experience untangling the massive mammals. Anderson loaded Yip’s gear onto his boat and followed two rescue teams using soft-bottom Zodiak-type boats.

About two miles out, they found the whale.

“When we pulled up, it was like the cavalry arrived,” Anderson said. “Everyone on the boats was screaming and cheering.”

Yip and his team used a GoPro to assess the whale from above and below the water.

It was skinny and the netting was making it hard for it to swim.

“There was a huge bundle just below the tail, and it was wrapped and wrapped and bunched up,” Yip said. “It’s made from monofilament and this stuff is just super strong. You could see the stuff draping off the net and all the lines below that the whale was carrying.”

Yip said it seemed the netting may have been with the whale for months – there were traces of lobster tracks, fishing weights and hooks.

not easy

Yip connected a buoy with VHS and satellite attached, so if the whale suddenly disappeared, the rescue teams could still find it. Getting a 4-foot poly ball attached helped further slow the whale down and keep it at the surface.

A serrated knife on a pole wasn’t making a dent in the massive bundle, so Yip moved in closer with a 14-inch, sickle-shaped whale knife. He’s only resorted to its use a few times in his 30 years.

After 50 cuts, Yip said the just started loosening. He switched to a smaller hand knife.

Once the lines were all cut, and leaning directly into the whale, he said he gently dug out the remaining filaments lodged deep into the whale’s flesh with his fingers.

“We were so excited to have been able to get all the gear off the whale,” said Dr. Alissa Deming, veterinarian for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. “But, the real success story would be if we could ban this type of gillnet so it will stop killing our wonderful marine life.”

On Thursday morning, Woolley was back aboard the Sum Fun with the fishing camp kids, and he used the experience to teach them about the hazards marine life encounters.

“I gave them an update this morning that the entanglement teams cut everything off,” he said, “and they all cheered.”

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