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

Proudest moment on the job?

There’s always a sense of pride if you successfully free a 40-ton whale from a life-threatening entanglement, all the while keeping people safe, learning new information that can contribute towards prevention and working as a team.

I have many examples, but one sticks out. In early 2015 we had an entangled humpback whale calf that we couldn’t get free. The wrap around the calf’s body had become embedded, the animal was elusive, and the mother protective. Even though we tried, we just didn’t have the means to get the calf free. So, a member of the team designed and fabricated a new knife that could get to embedded wraps, and later that year we received report of another calf similarly entangled. This time we also waited for a behavior from the mother that would allow us to approach close enough with our new knife on a long pole to make the cut. In this case the mother was resting at depth, and since the calf could not hold its breath as long, would come up a few times without her to breathe. On one such surfacing, we had patiently put the boat in position to reach out and make the cut that freed the animal. We were all very proud. And – I'll admit – it being a calf made it that much more special. Even baby whales are cute.

Hairiest moment on the job?

The first whale I worked on in Hawaii was in 2003. It was a yearling (a calf that had returned to the breeding/calving grounds with its mother) that changed its behavior from swimming in a straight line at 2 knots, to turning and swimming rapidly around 10 knots as we were holding on to the entangling gear from behind – our Nantucket sleighride. The rope we were holding onto got tight so quickly that it knocked me and another person in the inflatable boat down and gave us each rope burns across our faces and necks. Our injuries were minor, and we were able to clear the boat, but could have been worse. Lesson learned: those younger whales are a bit more unpredictable.

"We were all very proud. And – I'll admit – it being a calf made it that much more special." images courtesy of NOAA

What do you never leave the house without?

During whale season, I never leave the house without my binder so I can be ready to take a report should it come in. Beyond that I always try to have my cameras to help me gather information and my go-bag with all my safety gear and some tools with me at all times. We really are like first responders needing to be ready at a moment’s notice. Even as I write this, I have gotten a status report on an animal we cut free a few days ago.

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

Some folks may focus on just one aspect of the entanglement response team (perhaps the more glamorous or dramatic side) but typically it is the more mundane, methodical aspects of what we do that are actually of most value. For instance, in whale disentanglement we can’t fix the problem just by trying to cut every animal free. There are other goals regarding human safety, increasing awareness and stewardship, as well as gaining information to reduce the threat that are really important but sometimes get forgotten. It is why we call our effort “entanglement response” rather than disentanglement these days. There are so many important roles in this field alone – all extremely valuable – so don't limit yourself to a single goal.

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