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).
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.
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.
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.