IFLScience Meets: Whale Entanglement Responder Ed Lyman Tells Us About Nantucket Sleighrides, Swapping Humans For Whales, And The Cuteness Of Baby Giants

There's a lot more to disengtanglement attempts than cutting rope. Image courtesy of NOAA

Even Earth’s giants need a bit of help sometimes – and in an era where ocean plastic is an ever-growing concern, response units like that of Ed Lyman and his team are a crucial tool in protecting marine animals. Working with sanctuaries and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Lyman has played a pivotal role in freeing whales from all sorts of gear that has wrapped around them. We talk to him about how one finds themselves disentangling wildlife, and what it’s really like coming face to face with some of the planet’s largest animals.

What do you do?

Natural Resource Specialist for Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and Regional Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator under NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

What did it take to get here?

I pursued an undergraduate biology degree and a Master of Science in Zoology. However, my degrees were not limited to my particular field in whale research or the response. Instead, I used them as a foundation – a foot in the door towards placing myself in the right environments that would put me in contact with those people doing research on marine mammals and in the general field of marine mammal response. 

For instance, working for a non-profit called the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS), that did research and response work on whales. It was at PCCS that things took a turn in the direction of disentanglement response, as critically endangered right whales were being found entangled. People like David Mattila and Dr Stormy Mayo – pioneers in their field – were being asked to assist in cutting more whales free than before. Perhaps I was just in the right place at the right time, but I became one of their first interns in a way.

As far as the sanctuary where I now work in Hawaii, I was asked by David Mattila – who had become the sanctuary’s research and response coordinator – to lend a hand, and ended up staying. David is now pursuing the bigger picture and works with the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

ed lyman iflscience meets
"I would become a doctor of sorts, it just ended up being for animals instead of people." Image courtesy of NOAA

Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?

Later in high school and through college I was preparing to be a medical doctor. However, for various reasons the profession didn’t seem like a good fit and instead I pursued a graduate degree in zoology. Eventually I started working with whales and whale response (both stranding and disentanglement). So, I would say don't ignore your heart – your dreams – if you can. I would remind myself (and my mother) that I would become a doctor of sorts, it just ended up being for animals instead of people.  

What's the most common misconception about your line of work?

There are actually several big misconceptions. First, that the person or persons that free the animals from life threatening entanglements are heroes. Their efforts should indeed be acknowledged, but this work is a team effort involving many people, not just those doing the cutting.

Two, that the effort is all about freeing the whale. We learned early on that if we truly wanted to reduce the threat of entanglement, we had to go beyond the physical “disentanglement”. We were not going to solve the problem by cutting gear off whales one by one. Instead, we had to increase awareness, promote stewardship, and gain information towards better understanding and reducing the threat. It's why we now refer to our effort as “entanglement response.”

Third, that we get in the water to free the animals – we don’t. It's not safe, typically not as productive as one thinks, and (because of the former) it is illegal. So, everyone thinks I am a diver. I am, but not for whale rescue.

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