The humpback calf whose tail was anchored to the bottom of the Atlantic off Jones Beach State Park for at least four days until a herculean rescue freed him from two tons of fishing gear is surviving — and, while not swimming normally, has been feasting on bunker fish off Montauk.
"It’s really great news; sometimes we can go for weeks, we can go for years, before we understand the fate of [a] disentangled whale," said via telephone one of the animal's lead rescuers, Scott Landry, director of the marine animal entanglement response team at the Center for Coastal Studies, a Provincetown, Massachusetts-based nonprofit.
The 4-year-old calf was seen swimming and identified on Aug. 19 and 22 by Arthur Kopelman, president of the Coastal Research & Education Society of Long Island in West Sayville.
That was about three weeks after Landry, part of a multiagency team, succeeded in doing away with what he termed one of the top five most difficult entanglements.
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 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 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 wounds were apparent; you can’t mistake it," Kopelman said by phone. One photograph shows what look like sizable gashes in the calf’s flukes, the lobes of a whale’s tail that give it a T shape, and along the tail stock, the section between the body and the flukes. "It looks like it’s healing but that’s the best I can say."
Humpbacks are one of three species of whales 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 extinction are the minke whale and the even more imperiled right whale.
For the last decade or so, New Yorkers have been seeing more whales; researchers suspect that this is because the ocean is cleaner and bunker fish are more abundant as a result.
The young humpback has yet to be named; researchers wait because they are so uncertain that the whales will live long enough to become adults. But the calf's mother, named Nile because the white stripe under her fluke resembles the 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.
Her 4-year-old also was observed on Aug. 31 by Julia Stepanuk, a PhD dissertation candidate in ecology and the environment at Stony Brook University; and a technician, Eleanor Heywood. They set out from Shinnecock Inlet in an approximately 24-foot boat, as they regularly do from spring to autumn, researching the condition and size of whales in the New York Bight.
To Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences assistant Prof. Lesley Thorne, who holds the NOAA permit that allows the team to very briefly and cautiously fly a drone over whales, said Nile’s calf either still is healing or has been permanently damaged by its ordeal, trapped with its tail almost vertical in the water, in one of the East Coat’s busiest shipping lanes.
NOAA requires ships to stay 100 to 600 feet away from humpbacks; for the even more endangered right whale, the minimum is 500 yards. Drones are barred any closer than 1,500 feet for right whales and must stay at least 1,000 feet away from all other marine life.
"It was definitely not swimming normally or powerfully as we would see with a normal whale," said Thorne. Her review of the drone footage also shows that it might be having difficulty surfacing and diving.
Stepanuk, explaining that the team launches the drone from a distance, flies it at a height of about 100 feet and only for five minutes or so, said the team identified it by both its markings — and the cuts made by the rope and steel.
"To see an animal who had such a bad entanglement is really exciting," she said, adding that she has seen whales with more grievous injuries, likely from being struck by ships, with about half their tail missing.
"It’s still a Band Aid on the bigger problem; these animals are getting wrapped up in fishing gear."
Thorne’s research shows juvenile whales tend to chase bunker fish much closer to the shore than adults, perhaps because they are smaller and find it easier to swim where it is shallower. "Adults are probably more than 20 kilometers from shore," she said. Scientists fear more adult whales, which can be 60 feet long and weigh 40 tons, are dying from entanglements and collisions with ships than they know; those deaths are not counted because the animals are too distant to wash ashore.
The fishing gear that so thoroughly ensnarled Nile’s son evidently came from a trawler whose crew knew it had encountered 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, Landry said.
Jennifer Goebel, a NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman said investigators, working with other agencies, could not determine which fishing crew may have done so. "No markings were present that allowed us to identify an individual fisherman, although based on the recovered weight of the gear (approx. 4,000 lbs.), and overall health of the whale along with it being anchored, we determined the trawl net was of U.S. origin," she said by email.
To another of this whale’s rescuers, Rob DiGiovanni, chief scientist of Hampton Bays' Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, the calf's apparent survival is as rare as it is rewarding; just a few weeks ago one his team necropsied another humpback in New Jersey that might have been killed by a ship strike, one of around 55 large whales that the ocean has carried to the beach in the last 3 ½ years or so.
"We are still seeing a large number of washing up on the shores and understanding the reasons for that is critical as we share this environment."