Pollution and waste are the source of a plethora of problems in the modern era, on a planet whose population size has grown in tandem with the invention and use of hardy materials that when left as rubbish can take years, decades, or centuries to break down. The ocean is now home to several “trash islands” such as the Great Pacific garbage patch, made up of rubbish blown in from the land and material lost at sea (anyone remember the Friendly Floatees?) which can be swallowed by or entangle marine animals.
One such entangled animal was spotted in Maui this week, where a humpback whale was found to have a gauge line wrapped around its mouth and left pectoral with a trail of rope roughly 15 meters (50 feet) behind it. The sighting triggered a coordinated response from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary with the authorization of NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, who have experience removing gear from large marine animals.
The entangled subadult whale was found off Lahaina, Maui, by tour boats that were lending a hand to a search operation looking for a humpback whale calf that appeared to have been separated from its mother. After recognizing the sticky situation the young whale was in, the Ultimate Whale Watch tour vessel monitored the animal until the sanctuary research and response vessel could arrive on the scene to try and remove the line.
Unfortunately, the strong piece of gear had actually become embedded in the whale’s tissue, having dug in at the back of the mouth. This meant the rescuers were unable to pull or cut free the line without causing further damage. The team instead got to work on the trailing line wrapped around the left pectoral fin, which they saw more success with. Taking careful cuts at the material they were able to remove around 37 meters (120 feet) of gear, but with all the fuss the distressed whale soon became “uncooperative” and it was decided that further intervention could do more harm than good.
“Less than [10.6 meters) 35 feet of gear is believed to remain on the animal with all the wraps from the left pectoral flipper being removed, no potential for wraps to the tail, and little drag remaining,” said NOAA in a press release sent to IFLScience. “While we have no way of knowing whether the animal will survive, its chances have been significantly improved. Mahalo to all that were part of the effort and the valuable roles that all played.”
Mariners are asked to keep a sharp lookout for whales in distress, and if you spot any do not enter the water or try to disentangle the whale yourself. Maintain at least 90 meters (300 feet) distance and call the NOAA 24/7 Marine Wildlife Hotline at 1-888 256-9840, or radio the US Coast Guard on VHF CH. 16 and they will respond accordingly.