Humpback freed from entanglement with crab gear in Aberdeen

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Aberdeen — A humpback whale entangled in crabbing gear was freed Tuesday about seven miles off the mouth of Grays Harbor.

The humpback was liberated by two researchers and an intern from Cascadia Research with help from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Coast Guard and the crew aboard the crab vessel Pacific Girl, who reported the whale’s entanglement early that morning.

Early morning reporting was key, said John Calambokidis,senior research biologist and co-founder of Cascadia. “And the fact the commercial boat stayed with the whale.”

Cascadia receives an ensnared whale call about once a year, Calambokidis said. They are able to successfully free one about every other time.

Calambokidis, research biologist Jeff Foster and new intern Erin Stehr launched from Westport in the rigid-hulled inflatable boat Ziphid a little after noon. They met the Pacific Girl and a 47-foot motor lifeboat sent out by the Coast Guard to provide support, safety and logistics assistance.

The whale had moved roughly one nautical mile from the original location when they joined up.

The humpback, some 35 to 40 feet long and perhaps three to five years of age, apparently picked up the crab lines and pot down in Oregon, snagging more lines and gear as it traveled north. “The floats had algae growth on them indicating they had likely been on the whale for some time,” he noted on Cascadia’s website.

The entangled lines and gear were wrapped around its tailstock and flukes.

“The whale was surfacing almost vertically and was making very little lateral progress. Water visibility was very poor and combined with this body posture made seeing or acting on the entanglement very difficult. The whale was very approachable and allowed, and possibly even initiated, very close proximity to the boat,” he said.

Just after 4 p.m., the whale’s behavior changed and seemed more active and mobile as they cut away lines and equipment. The whale showed its back and they could see more entangled rope and floats near the peduncle, or muscular rear flank, and flukes.

They grabbed trailing floats with a grappling hook. Through use of the grapple line and boat maneuvers, they were able to get a better look. “The float line went over the left fluke, around and beneath the caudal peduncle and then back over the right fluke before extending downward to the crab pot” which was not visible, he recounted.

Shortly after 5 p.m. they were able to hook that line with their pole and attach a fly cutting head or tool. The whale sped up and the line tensed. Within 30 seconds or so the head cut through the line descending to the crab gear. They were able to unwrap the lines and pull them completely off the whale. They retrieved the gear, bearing identification markings indicating it was a crab pot from Oregon.

“The whale swam rapidly away and was not re-sighted,” he said.

To report an entangled whale in Washington and Oregon, call the NOAA FIsheries Entanglement Reporting Hotline at1-877-SOS-WHALe 1-877-767-9425. To report any live or dead stranded marine mammal in Washington and Oregon, please call the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 1-866-767-6114.