On Friday, August 24th, most of the WDCS-NA office headed out on the vessel Easterly to document small vessel traffic in the vicinity of whales as part of our propeller scar project. As always, we document, and when possible, retrieve any marine debris we locate. Early in the trip, at approximately 11:15AM, we stopped to retrieve a balloon when Sue Rocca located a whale about a mile from our position. Upon approaching the location of the whale, we noted that the behavior was odd (consistently rolling onto its left side and forcefully submerging, creating white water as it did so).
Surface times were less than 30 seconds while dive times exceeded 8 minutes. Humpback whales typically fluke, or lift their tails above the surface when diving and rarely create white water in doing so, unless they are feeding. After watching the whale behave like this for a number of surfacings, we notified the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Team at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (where Marta Hevia from the WDCS-LA office is currently training for disentanglement work). They requested further documentation and by this point we were able to approach and verify that the whale was entangled in black polypropylene line. We again notified the Disentanglement Team and committed to remaining with the whale until they arrived.
The whale was identified as a five year old named Forceps, Ganesh’s 2007 calf (grandcalf of Loon). Our database indicates we had sightings of
Forceps this year on 7/11, 7/13, and 8/17 with no entangled gear. The Dolphin Fleet reported a more recent gear free sighting on August 20thindicating the whale had been entangled for less than four days, and the entanglement likely occurred in gear that was local to the area. When the Disentanglement Team arrived, we offered to remain with them to assist in locating Forceps as its direction of travel was not consistent and surfacings were extremely brief (sometimes only seconds at the surface). For the next four and a half hours, we remained on site with the whale, though we traveled less than two miles in that time. During our time on site, we were also ensuring that vessels transiting the area remained a distance from the whale. And there was no shortage of them; here are a few photos of vessels transiting our area while disentanglement attempts were underway.
The entangling line appeared to enter the left side of the mouth, exit the right side and wrap over the blowholes. The wrap appeared tight and there was some mass of gear, or line, that was weighing down the
left side of the whale, hence the rolling to dive. No trailing line was noticed. As a result, even though the Disentanglement team attempted to grapple onto to a line many, many times – every attempt proved futile.
Further attempts to cut the line with a “fly cutter” (remotely deployed with a cross bow) were also unsuccessful. We left only when the
Disentanglement Team ceased efforts. We have alerted whale watching vessels in the area of Forceps, but, as of now, there have been no further sightings. After leaving the area, we found two
humpback whales (Putter and Wave) northeast of our location. After a few minutes of observing these two whales they became very surface active, which was a nice end to a rather stressful day. But as we stayed and watched, these two whales moved into a high concentration of actively fished lobster gear. We are happy to report that these whales were able to navigate the gear while we were with them.
I would like to personally thank the efforts of our crew, and particularly one of our interns, Michelle Collins, who never left her position of behaviorally sequencing every breath and behavior of Forceps for more than six hours. We are also greatly appreciative of the effort put forward by the Disentanglement Team and share their frustration in not freeing this whale. However, this incident is a reminder that disentanglement is not a solution to the larger threat of incidental fishing gear entanglements. WDCS-NA has federally appointed seats on the Atlantic Large Whale, Atlantic Trawl Gear, Harbor Porpoise, and Bottlenose Dolphin Take Reduction Teams. We are in a position to develop management plans for fisheries that will substantially reduce this threat along the entire east coast. I know this experience has further motivated me to argue even more for humpback protection under the large whale plan, which is currently focused on NA right whales.