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Whale tangled in fishing gear off Jones Beach freed after 4-day effort

Several orgazations worked to free a humpback whale

Several orgazations worked to free a humpback whale Thursday that was tangled in fishing gear. Credit: Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

A young whale anchored to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island’s Jones Beach by a ton or more of fishing gear finally was freed after four days of arduous work by rescuers who refused to quit — and it “surged forward,” which is a hopeful sign, one of them said Saturday.

The 4-year-old calf — an increasingly rare humpback — was spotted on Monday about 10 miles offshore by recreational boaters who reported its strange behavior, said Scott Landry, director of the marine animal entanglement response team at the Center for Coastal Studies, a Provincetown, Massachusetts-based nonprofit.

The humpback was so thoroughly weighed down that it was vertical in the water, Landry said.

It appears the gear mooring the whale to the bottom of the shipping lane came from a trawler whose crew knew it had encountered some sort of a problem and cut the cables attaching it to the boat — but failed to report that it might have caught a whale instead of the bottom feeding fish it was hunting, he said.

The humpback calf, about 25 to 30 feet long, was forced to repeatedly surface to breathe, said Rob DiGiovanni, chief scientist with the Hampton Bays-based Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. The society's team, along with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, confirmed the whale's plight after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration relayed a report by the U.S. Coast Guard.

No one initially understood just how hard this rescue would be because the water visibility was just 4 to 5 feet, while the fishing gear, which Landry said weighed “thousands and thousands of pounds,” had sunk to the bottom of Ambrose Channel.

The Provincetown experts have been disentangling whales since 1984, Landry said, and this was among the top five rescues in difficulty because the steel cables and one-inch thick rope mooring the humpback to the sea bed were hidden from view and would have to be hoisted up, first by a NOAA vessel and then by a much larger Army Corps of Engineers ship. And even the Army Corps’ bolt cutters could not slice through the cable; Landry’s team had to borrow their hacksaws, too.

The humpback finally was released on Thursday, officials said, after a multiple agency effort made even more difficult by rough ocean swells — and the extra difficulty its rescuers had communicating with each other while wearing anti-virus masks that also made it harder for them to hear each other above the wind and noise from their vessels, DiGiovanni said.

Humpbacks are one of three whales seen in this area whose numbers are declining due to what NOAA calls an unusual mortality event. Only 896 humpbacks were tallied in 2015 in the Atlantic. The other two species at risk of becoming extinct are the minke whale and the even more imperiled right whale.

The young humpback that was trapped in one of the busiest East Coast shipping lanes has yet to be named; researchers hold off because the likelihood they will live long enough to become adults is so low. But the calf’s mother, named Nile because the white stripe under her fluke resembles that river in Egypt, is fairly well known — and her family’s history demonstrates the sorry frequency with which entanglements have become what Landry called part of the life of whales in this region. His team freed Nile in 2001 and another of her calves in 1998.

The U.S. Coast Guard informed NOAA of the whale’s plight on Monday. The Atlantic Marine Conservation Society and the New York DEC found the whale that evening, and confirmed it was alive though they could not see what it was caught in, NOAA said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society and the DECwere able to secure better images confirming the entanglement and its configuration, which were holding the whale’s tail down,” NOAA said.

After the Coast Guard on Wednesday morning confirmed the whale was still struggling, Landry and two other team members, Maria Harvey and Bob Lynch, flew in on a flight donated by another rescue group, the Boise, Idaho-based nonprofit called Turtles Fly Too.

From a 16-foot Zodiac, Landry’s team, using specialized knives and other equipment designed to avoid harming whales, made 10 to 15 attempts that first day to free the humpback. It is far too dangerous to swim anywhere near a humpback, noted DiGiovanni, who handled logistics and “choreographed” the fleet of rescue boats, as these creatures are so strong they can raise two-thirds of their body out of the water.

The first day was brutally disappointing.

“When we still made no progress whatsoever, we started to suspect that there was more going on than we imagined,” Landry said. “By that point most of our knives were broken.”

The next morning, Landry’s team dropped a specially crafted grapple into the water and, driving slowly around the calf, caught hold of what turned out to be an enormous amount of gear.  A ship NOAA donated to New Jersey’s Monmouth University, the Heidi Lynn Sculthorpe, lifted that gear as high as it could, about 30 feet or so. Though that was not high enough, at least, said Landry, “Once all that weight was lifted, the animal was able to get into a more normal position — horizontal.”

Then the fishing gear was carefully transferred to the much larger Army Corps ship, the Hayward, officials said. “The swells were very unfriendly,” Landry said. “And it’s not an easy thing to transfer gear from one boat to another — with a whale attached to it.”

It was only then the rescuers got their first look at all of the cable and rope encircling the humpback’s tail.

They began sawing through all the rope — but “the flukes were almost entirely wrapped in steel cable,” Landry said. “The Army Corps of Engineers handed us bolt cutters" but they only “pinched” the steel, so the Army Corps came through with the hacksaws. “We just kept sawing.”

The steel cable was, fortunately, one continuous length, and the whale, now that it was horizontal and possibly sensing it might just escape its ordeal, was trying to swim away.

Finally, said Landry: “As the whale surged forward, all of that cable unzipped and the whale surged off.”

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