Local News

September 16, 2006

moss landing

Scientists explain the safest way to save entangled whales

How do you free a 40-ton whale with its tail wrapped up in fishing gear? Ed Lyman, a professional whale savior out of Hawaii, says, "Very carefully."

Each year about 300,000 whales and dolphins die from entanglement in fishing gear or buoy lines worldwide. The threats are everywhere — almost any rope or net in the ocean can trap a whale, Lyman said.

Whales and dolphins are naturally curious and have been seen playing with the brightly colored floats fishermen use to mark their traps. Once near the buoy, a simple flick of the tail is all it takes to get the whale hopelessly entangled. Once trapped the whale may drown or die of exhaustion.

But freeing an entangled whale can be dangerous for the whale and rescuers.

"The whales have so much weight and momentum, if they just brush you, they can break bones," Lyman said.

Lyman has helped free 44 whales in the 10 years he has worked for the Hawaiian Island National Marine Sanctuary and hasn't been injured yet. He rescues whales from the boat using special hooks that can cut ropes without injuring the whale.

Lyman will be giving a training seminar next week to help local marine mammal experts free whales without endangering themselves. Wednesday, he will give a presentation to the public at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, explaining what people should do if they find an entangled whale.

In most cases, Lyman said, the whale is not in immediate danger. The whales are so big and strong they can often swim for a long time pulling huge amounts of weight. Lyman recently found a whale in Hawaii that had come from Alaska with 300 pounds of weight attached to its tail.

"Sometimes there's nothing you can do, and it haunts you," Lyman said.

If you find an entangled whale, you should not try to free it yourself, Lyman said. Call the Coast Guard and have them notify local marine mammal experts who can get the proper permits to rescue the whale.

"We love it when people save whales but we're scared someone will get hurt or killed," Lyman said.

On Sept. 3, wildlife tour guide Debi Shearwater discovered a small humpback whale entangled in fishing gear off Carmel. She reported her find to the Coast Guard and within a few hours an impromptu team of marine researchers arrived to free it.

Sean Van Sommeran of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation headed the rescue effort. Without the long hooks Lyman uses to free whales, he had little choice but to send swimmers into the water to cut the ropes.

"If the whale had gone any deeper, the weight would have pulled the poor thing under," Van Sommeran said.

After just 16 minutes in the water, the two divers had freed the whale without mishap.

Each year, gray whales migrating along the California coast must swim through a minefield of more than 150,000 crab pots to get to their spring breeding grounds. Humpback whales and orcas also ply the coast year-round in search of food.

Although fishing gear is the most common entanglement, Lyman was careful not to point a finger at fishermen. When a whale gets wrapped up in fishing gear, it not only hurts the whale, but also means the loss of expensive equipment for the fishermen.

If you find an entangled whale, call the Marine Mammal Center at 415 289-7350.

Contact Emily Saarman at esaarman@santacruzsentinel.com

If you go

WHAT: "Safe and Sound" Entangled whale rescue information session.

WHERE: Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, 8727 Moss Landing Road.

WHEN: Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.

COST: Free.


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