A whale-watching adventure late Friday off Southern California developed into a dramatic and prolonged rescue effort after a young Pacific gray whale was spotted trailing about 50 feet of a commercial fisherman’s gill-net. A trained disentanglement team led by Dave Anderson was successful in freeing the 30-foot whale Saturday evening off Dana Point in what the team described as a miraculous event (see video below for some of the action).
Gray whale swims to freedom after a 24-hour rescue effort off Dana Point, Calif.
That description was based partly on what occurred overnight, after the team had attached a lighted buoy to the net in order to maintain sight of the whale until morning.
“The whale shook free of the buoy and we lost sight of it, but we were able to find it again by shutting off our engine and listening for it,” said Gisele Anderson, who with her husband runs Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari. “That took about two hours and it was unbelievable that we were able to relocate the whale in the dark like that.”
After it had secured another lighted buoy to the net, Peter Bartholomew and two other volunteers arrived to spell the disentanglement team until dawn, when the team would return to begin cutting the net’s ropes.
What it discovered was alarming. The monofilament netting, which had sliced deeply into the whale’s tail section, was extremely heavy and had trapped and killed other marine creatures, including a sea lion and two sharks.
“This whale was towing an entire ecosystem behind it,” bemoaned Dave Anderson, who was granted permission to conduct the attempt by NOAA Fisheries.
Gray whales are migrating from Baja California breeding grounds to Arctic feeding grounds and it’s believed that the juvenile, which was very thin, had become entangled about a week earlier.
The team, using inflatable boats and specialized disentanglement equipment, spent all day slicing away at large sections of gill-net.
Gill-nets are like giant volleyball nets that trap and kill marine life indiscriminately. The team used poles and grappling hooks to collect sections of netting, which they then cut with knives.
It also attached sharp clip-hooks onto thicker sections of netting at strategic points. Those hooks were tied to control lines and secured to buoys, so when the whale submerged the lines would tighten under the drag and the hooks would slice into the netting.
Finally, just before dark, the whale dived, dragging four large buoys beneath the surface like a scene from “Jaws.”
The pull of the buoys cut what was left of the netting — except for a short tailing of line that had become embedded in the skin — and the whale surfaced a minute later as a free animal.
“It really was a miracle,” Gisele Anderson said.
Coincidentally, Dave Anderson recently published a coffee table book titled “Lily, A Gray Whale’s Odyssey,” which tells the saga of another gray whale that Anderson helped rescue years earlier.
The juvenile whale was named “Bart” in honor of Bartholomew, for keeping track of the mammal’s movements in the darkness. Others involved in the disentanglement effort were Capt. Tom Southern, Mark Tyson, Steve Plantz, Barry Curtis, Mike Johnson, and Dana Friedman and Scott Davis from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
With Bartholomew on whale babysitting duty were Hank Davis and Gary Weiberg.
– Second image shows Capt. Dave Anderson holding some of the netting cut from a juvenile gray whale during a marathon rescue effort off Dana Point.