NOAA Fisheries Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC), Pacific Island Regional Office (PIRO), NOAA Sanctuaries, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) and the U.S. Coast Guard, work collectively as a single team when it comes to responding to a whale that is reported to have gear entangled on its body. This team is the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network. Every year the Humpback whales migrate to the warmer Hawaiian waters after feeding in the food-rich waters of the Arctic. When the whales return every year, a few of them arrive with rope, floats or other gear wrapped around their bodies. The ropes and floats slow the maneuverability of a whale, sometimes it can make cuts into the animal and in general, the gear affects the health of the animal. Some whales have been known to die directly or indirectly from their entanglement and it is the team’s goal to safely remove the gear.
Knowing that whale migration is on a yearly cycle, The Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network met last week to go over their gear, discuss response strategies and hone their skills. As it was pointed out…. “It is whale season again, so let’s get ready”. Whale disentanglement is extremely risky. In fact, people are sometimes killed by whales while attempting to free the animal. The task requires a lot of skill to work with lines under load, read animal behavior and stay safely clear of the animal. It is crucial that the team has the correct tools for the job and that this team knows to plan, prepare and train to do everything they can to set themselves up for success, since whale disentanglement is never easy and rarely goes to plan.
Ed Lyman, Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator for NOAA Sanctuaries goes over the response kits containing cutting tools specialized to reach and cut rope from long distances, telemetry buoys (round green object with “Leave on Whale” in foreground) and grappled hooks designed to grab the trailing gear behind the whale.
This year the team built a mock whale by converting an inflatable boat and adding a 9 foot wide tail to its transom.
The mock whale (15’ inflatable boat) had rope wrapped and tied around its tail and body. Once in the water another NOAA boat was used to drag it so to give the whale speed, and the ability to turn away from the responders, as would a normal animal. The team knows that there is a lot of technique and practice needed to get close enough to make the necessary cuts with a long pole. So practice they did. During the day, dozens of approaches were made, some with success and some with misses. However, their skills were honed and now they are ready for the whales.
For more information on the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network please see the following link: http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/res/rescue_network.html