Sunday, June 13, 2021
June 13, 2021

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Ocean debris snares baby whale off Calif.

Agencies attempt to help, question how to fix problem


LOS ANGELES — The plight of an entangled baby whale off Orange County, Calif., has sparked an urgent multiagency rescue effort, highlighting again the perils that ocean debris poses to marine mammals and other wildlife.

The baby gray whale has a rope around its mouth and trailing in the water behind it. That’s prompted a team of ocean animal experts from Dana Point to Monterey to closely follow the whale, hoping to get close enough to extricate it.

As the calf grows, the rope could tighten around it, potentially tearing off skin or breaking limbs. The consequences could be deadly.

“Unfortunately, with most of these entanglements, if the whale can’t get it off and we can’t get it off,” said Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, “they ultimately lead up to death.”

Hugging the California Coast, the calf and mother are making the arduous annual migration to forage off Alaska. They left behind their winter home in Mexico, where Viezbicke said the mother probably spent a busy season breeding and calving, to swim 24 hours a day on a dwindling supply of energy. A bastion of killer whales looms ahead in Monterey, he added.

A photographer who volunteers at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach spotted the mother-child pair April 19 while aboard a Captain Dave’s Dolphin Safari tour near Dana Point Harbor, said Krysta Higuchi, PMMC spokesperson. A team of PMMC and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration workers quickly loaded onto a boat to rescue the entangled whale.

Each year, according to NOAA, billions of pounds of trash enter the ocean, and nets, ropes and other gear from boats add to the debris.

In the current rescue, Viezbicke said, the goal is to save the whale but also learn how to prevent another entanglement. NOAA reported 17 whale entanglements along the West Coast last year.

“The entanglement response team is really a Band-Aid,” Viezbicke said. “We want to be more preventative in nature than reactive.”

Viezbicke said he expects the whales will show up next in Monterey, where killer whales live. The mother will probably be even more protective of her young, he said, which could make for another difficult encounter with the humans trying to help.