A pod of humpback whales were bubble net feeding at night in Southeast Alaska when one of the whales struck a small cruise ship anchored in Holkham Bay and became tangled in the anchor line.
The Wilderness Explorer, a 186-foot ship that accommodates up to 74 guests, was overnighting near Wood Spit some 45 miles south of Juneau. The crew noticed the tangled whale at around 2:15 Sunday morning.
"When the mate came on watch at midnight he noted that there were whales that had moved into the area," UnCruise Adventures CEO Dan Blanchard told KFSK radio in nearby Petersburg.
"We believed they were probably lunge feeding [NOAA said they were bubble net feeding] and can't tell in the dark but one probably lunged and caught the anchor chain as best we can think of. There was no appearance of like a net or crab pot or anything else it was towing that might have precipitated this."
Just before 3 a.m., the crew alerted NOAA Fisheries, which contacted Alaska's Large Whale Entanglement Response Network for assistance, according to a NOAA Fisheries news release.
The network of NOAA specialists and humpback whale researcher Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation arrived on the scene by boat the next morning from Baranof Warm Springs. NOAA Office of Law Enforcement officer Bob Marvelle and NOAA whale expert John Moran also arrived, from Juneau.
"Using a camera on the end of a long pole, the team assessed the entanglement and determined the anchor chain was wrapped around the lower jaw with only a half twist and 50 feet of chain between the animal and the vessel," NOAA reported.
"While consulting with NOAA Large Whale Entanglement expert Ed Lyman by phone, and working with the crew of Wilderness Explorer, the team decided the best plan of action that would ensure safety of the responders, yet have a good chance of freeing the whale, was to make a clean cut of the chain at the vessel and hope the whale could navigate the remaining half twist to free itself of the 50 feet or less of chain."
The anchor chain was cut just shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday.
The whale initially remained at the surface but soon submerged and, it was believed, managed to free itself from the remaining chain.
"It was sighted swimming away at about a quarter mile and again at half a mile from the vessel and was not seen again," NOAA said.
Blanchard called the decision to cut the anchor line "the right thing" to do.
He told KFSK that the anchor is in about 100 feet of water and he thinks it can be recovered. In the meantime, the ship returned to Petersburg to install an emergency anchor and scheduled the installation of a new chain.
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