Whales aplenty off Southern California, but one needs help fast; photos and video

Gray whale towing a gillnet. Photo: Courtesy of Frank Brennan/Dana Wharf Whale Watching

**Update: This whale was spotted late Wednesday off Santa Barbara. Conditions were poor and there was no rescue attempt.

Between periods of fog recently off Southern California, gray whales have materialized in astounding numbers, lending a storybook quality to coastal waters.

On Saturday and Monday, volunteer spotters for the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, counted 105 and 107 northbound gray whales, respectively. These are the project's highest daily numbers for northbound gray whales in 29 years.

On other days, whales have been spied during prolonged periods mating.

But in a sad twist, one whale is burdened by commercial fishing gear wrapped around its fluke, traveling alone at a dreadfully slow pace.

The whale picked up the gear – a pink gillnet with green lines and black floats – somewhere during its journey from Baja California, en route to summer feeding grounds off Alaska.

This is the whale that interests NOAA Fisheries and disentanglement teams.

It was first spotted Sunday afternoon off Dana Point in Orange County. Capt. Frank Brennan of Dana Wharf Whale Watching captured drone images and alerted NOAA.

Gray whales in what appears to be a hug. Photo: Courtesy of Ryan Lawler/Newport Coastal Adventure

Capt. Dave Anderson of Capt. Dave's Whale watching Safari located the whale Sunday night, but lost the cetacean in the dark.

The whale, still perilously ensnared, was was spotted Monday afternoon off Point Vicente in Los Angeles County, by census project volunteers. But again, it was too late to mount a rescue effort.

It's worth noting that rescues are tricky and dangerous, and can only legally be attempted by NOAA-approved teams. They require enough daylight to gather personnel and gear, reach the whale, and either attempt a rescue or place a buoy or satellite tag on the whale, so it can be relocated the next day.

NOAA does not have the funds to actively search for entangled whales. Rescue attempts are launched only after reported sightings, and many entangled whales are not rescued.

This particular whale, although it's swimming slowly, is ensnared at the base of its fluke. Boaters would not necessarily notice the fishing gear unless the whale raised its fluke.

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Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network Coordinator for NOAA, did not respond to an email asking for a Tuesday morning update.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who runs the Gray Whale Census Project and is part of the rescue network, said the hope is that the whale will be spotted by a private boater Tuesday, since there are no whale-watching companies operating along the 70-mile stretch between Redondo Beach and the Oxnard-Ventura area.

"Basically we've gotten the word out to the people and it'll be up to them to notify us if they find it," Schulman-Janiger said.

Whale-watching operations in Oxnard, Ventura, and Santa Barbara are asked to be on the lookout over the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, the 6,500-mile northbound migration for gray whales that are not with offspring is nearing its peak off Southern California.

The next wave will involve mothers and calves, who are always the last to leave Mexico.