Entangled Whale’s Ordeal Ends As Scientists Free It

Heavily entangled flukes of humpback whale. NOAA permit 18786

Researchers have managed to rescue a humpback whale that was entangled in ropes. The whale, which was hogtied from mouth to tail, had also sustained injuries from a shark bite. The whale quickly swam out of the area once it was freed.

The animal was first spotted by researchers from the Center For Coastal Studies (CCS) last Saturday (July 11, 2015) in Stellwagen Bank, Massachusetts Bay. The researchers were studying gases exhaled by humpback whales when they came across the trapped creature.

It was found essentially immobile as the ropes prevented it from swimming or using its tail for defense. Researchers don’t know how long the whale had been entangled for. The whale was trapped at a popular feeding ground, where a white shark that measured 4.5 meters (15 feet) in length prowled nearby.

Entangled humpback whale, disentangled by Center for Coastal Studies Marine Animal Entanglement Response team. Image credit: NOAA permit 18786.

The Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from CCS were able to cut the rope from the mouth of the whale using a hook-shaped knife while aboard their 10-meter (33-foot) response vessel. Researchers usually use an inflatable boat in entanglement missions, but they were forced to use the vessel to protect themselves from the shark. While these types of rescues are not uncommon for CCS, the program's director Scott Landry told The Washington Post that though they've been doing this since 1984, “this is the first time, in our knowledge, that we've had a white shark around us.”

The shark eventually moved out of the area. The whole process is thought to have taken around three hours. Sharks killing entangled whales is currently an ongoing problem in Australia, and could become more frequent in Atlantic waters, according to Landry. They’re far more likely to attack young or vulnerable whales – like the trapped whale – than healthy adults. Landry said in a statement that the whale was “incredibly lucky” and would have probably been killed if it had not been freed. 

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