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Gray Whale Rescue!

Rescuers from The Marine Mammal Center and the U.S. Coast Guard successfully freed a young gray whale entangled in and weighted down with 25 feet of crab pot line near Dillon Beach on May 14, 2012.

Updated 5:45pm, May 15, 2012

Rescuers get in position near the gray whale in order to remove the entanglement from around its mouth. Photo taken under NOAA MMHSRP Permit number 932-1905.


The estimated 25-foot long juvenile gray whale was originally spotted by sightseers off of the northern point of Dillon Beach in Bodega Bay, CA on May 11 with what appeared to be brightly colored buoys nearby. On May 13 the sightseers called The Marine Mammal Center for help, and a rescue operation was coordinated with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Marine Mammal Center rescue volunteer Phil Warren, who lives in the area, used a high-powered lens to snap photos of the whale. It was hard to tell if the whale was entangled or just hanging out, so the Center called the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance to see if they could get close enough to determine if a rescue was warranted. It turned out that the whale was indeed entangled in at least one crab pot line and was in distress.

Operating under the authority of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Species (Southwest Region) and the Marine Mammal Heath and Stranding Response Program, permit # 932-1905, a rescue mission was planned for the morning of May 14 with the Northern California Whale Entanglement Team (WET), which is comprised of members from The Marine Mammal Center and the Alaska Whale Foundation who are trained to help in these kinds of dangerous rescues. The USCG provided a 47' MLB and crew for safety and monitoring. The team included the Center's research associate, Lauren Rust, and animal rescue volunteers Kathi Koontz, Lincoln Shaw, Peter Ottersbach and Doug Ross, and from the Alaska Whale Foundation, naturalist and marine life illustrator Pieter Folkens, who graciously offered the use of his boat for the rescue and acted as Captain.

A gray whale is entangled in two crab pot lines north of Dillon Beach in Marin County. Photo taken under NOAA MMHSRP permit # 932-1905.
© Lincoln Shaw - The Marine Mammal Center and Whale Entanglement Team

On the scene, rescuers discovered that the young whale was entangled in two sets of commercial crab pot gear. A loop between one of the crab pots and the weighted line became caught crosswise in the whale's mouth, perhaps while the whale was feeding on the bottom. The condition of two of the floats suggested that part of the entanglement had been on the whale for a while. Dragging this gear, the whale became entangled in a second set of crab pot gear. This mess became stuck in the rocks in 28 feet of water north of Dillon Beach. Trying to work itself free, the whale twisted the entangling line around its lower jaw, creating a life-threatening situation.

Members of the Whale Entanglement Team hold up part of the crab pot line and gear that had trapped a young gray whale for many days. Left to Right: Lauren Rust, Doug Ross, Lincoln Shaw, Peter Ottersbach, Kathi Koontz and Pieter Folkens

The whale was malnourished (rescuers could see his ribs), most likely from not being able to feed. Other than the malnourishment and entanglement, he appeared to be in good body condition. With careful precision, the team slowly maneuvered the boat close to the whale and began the meticulous job of cutting away the line. As they kept tension on the upper part of the lines, the whale spun the boat many times clockwise. Then, the opportunity rescuers were looking for came; the whale came up for breath and they were able to try a cut of the rope at the mouth using a serrated jamming knife attached to an 8' pole. Their persistence paid off and by about 2 pm the line was cut free. At the moment the line disappeared, the whale immediately moved forward and swam off - free at last! The rescue crew was able to remove most of the derelict gear and will be turning over that material, complete with tags and identifying numbers, to the appropriate agencies.


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