Adventures in disentangling a whale

The Nongame Conservation Section of the Georgia DNR's Wildlife Resources Division is part of a special team trained to locate, track and attempt to free north Atlantic right whales entangled in commercial fishing gear. The job is dangerous and requires intense coordination and teamwork.

North Atlantic right whales give birth during the winter months in the ocean waters along the Georgia and north Florida coasts, the only calving ground for this imperiled species. Along with the soon-to-be mothers, sub-adult whales and some adult males make the trip south out of New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces during November and December to calving areas in the Southeast.

The disentanglement duties have been an unusually frequent job during this whale calving season. Since December, five entangled right whales have been spotted off the Georgia and Florida coasts. For most years, the average is one. At least four of the whales have been wrapped in hundreds of feet of rope, apparently from lobster pots. Biologists suspect the whales became entangled in the Bay of Fundy, which is a well-known right whale foraging area between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada.

One young whale was freed in late December in Georgia waters after becoming entangled in lobster pot gear approximately 12 days earlier off Canada. Nongame Conservation Section staff was in the point boat, and senior wildlife biologist Mark Dodd cut the ropes from the 30-ton animal. Another right whale that had been entangled was recently seen gear-free, a month after Nongame employees removed 100 yards of rope trailing behind the whale's flukes.

Unfortunately, not all entangled whales are so fortunate. The success rate for right whale disentanglement is only about 50 percent. Many entangled right whales carry the entwining ropes for months or years until they die from infection, starvation or other factors related to the entanglement.

The following are firsthand accounts from Nongame Conservation Section staff involving attempts to free this calving season's third entangled whale, a 6-year-old nicknamed Bridle.

The attempts were made Jan. 14, Jan. 23-24 and Feb. 1 in extensive efforts involving the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), New England Aquarium, The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, Wildlife Trust and Coastwise Consulting.

Once a crew engages the whale, the process is complex and fast paced. Disentanglement begins by getting close to the animal in a small boat, throwing a grappling hook over the ropes trailing behind the whale, and being towed by the whale while a satellite-tracking buoy is attached to the ropes. Then, when the time is right, the team makes another approach to try to cut away the fishing gear using specialized cutting blades on very long, extendable poles. Large buoys are often added to slow the whale and keep it near the surface, a process known as kegging.

Observers in a plane help by describing the behavior and location of the whale, as well relaying details on the orientation of the trailing lines. The satellite buoy is critical for tracking the whale remotely at night and during periods of inclement weather between disentanglement attempts.

This juvenile whale was trailing 200 feet of line and had an orange buoy wrapped near its mouth. The team sliced away nearly 175 feet of synthetic rope on Jan. 14. As of early February, subsequent tries have been less successful.

The Nongame crew included Brad Winn, program manager for the section's coastal office, senior wildlife biologist Mark Dodd, wildlife biologist Clay George and technician Kate Sparks.


Brad Winn on the first day

"Clay got the call around 3:30 p.m. (Jan. 14). We grabbed our gear and launched the inflatable Zodiac. We approached the area indicated by the last known coordinates, about 10 miles off of Brunswick.

"The NOAA aircraft, with Wildlife Trust observers aboard, was circling the animal. The spotter plane carrying the skilled Wildlife Trust observation team is key to finding the stressed whales and directing our approach from the water. When we began to approach the area under the plane, we saw spouting at the surface.

"On our first approach to the whale, we saw the line. It was a small right whale, maybe approximately 35 feet. Mark took the grappling hook, launched it across the three ropes coming from the whale, and was able to retrieve the first line.

"We pulled the line into the boat -- Clay was driving. We continued to follow the whale, working up the line at whale speed, about 4 knots, until we were within about two whale-lengths of the animal. Kate secured the first flotation buoy and then got the satellite-tracking buoy attached just behind the floatation buoy on the ropes still attached to the whale.

"Almost immediately after, Mark threw the grappling hook again about 50 feet and was able to snag a second line trailing the whale. That line was cut as close to the whale as the boat could approach, just behind the massive tail of the animal.

"The third line was cut off close to the whale in the same manner, and we backed off, with almost 200 feet of what appeared to be lobster pot rope coiled in the boat.

"There were a few more close approaches, mainly to try to get a biopsy sample for genetics analysis. While Kate steered, Clay shot a dart from the bow and got a small skin and blubber sample. The plane stayed until we were done. They relayed location information and were very important because it was so difficult to approach the whale. She became very evasive, turning on her dives and ending up well behind our boat."


Mark Dodd on disentanglement attempts Jan. 23

"Because this was a difficult disentanglement, with several lines all around the head, we had to give it careful thought, review the photos carefully and come up with a plan. We had experts come in from all over the country including veterinarians and experienced disentanglers that are experts at this type of operation.

"We were all working together, kind of like a traveling circus. There were four boats and lots of equipment. All the gear and boats are on trailers so we can be mobile and get to the whale when we have a good weather window.

"A projected track from data collected by the tracking buoy suggested the whale would be off St. Augustine the following morning ... so we all assembled there.

"At first the plan was just observe the whale's behavior, then move in with the boat. You've got a driver and a person in the bow with a pole, about 15 feet long with a cutting knife attached. The on-water operations often require aerial support. The plane monitors the whale's position and when the whale is about to surface, they say something like, "Whale surfacing at 2 o'clock, 60 feet." At that point, the driver tries to position the boat near the animal's head, and you hope that the bowman can get the knife onto the ropes to cut them.

"This particular whale was very evasive and after several hours of approaches, we could tell we weren't going to be successful. On one approach, I look over the side and I can see her -- the callosities are white so I can see her 3-4 feet below the surface on her way up -- and I think, 'OK, here we go.' And then next thing you know I look over the side and I see this huge fluke disappearing toward the bottom. She just did this massive nosedive as she was about to surface! Crazy.

"There was one attempt where it was all timed properly, we got right to the head as she surfaced and I thought, 'This is it.' Unfortunately, she exhaled strongly, and the spray (whale breath) temporarily blinded the driver. When our vision cleared, her head was already below the surface.

"At the end of the day, it is interesting to talk with all the cooperators to get their perspectives on the day's events. Katie Jackson, who provided the aerial support for the operation, described the whole thing as a ballet. From her vantage point, it appeared that we would approach the whale, and it would gracefully turn away from us and dive, to avoid letting us approach. For us on the water, there are waves splashing over the bow, and this thing is huge, as big as a city bus, it feels more like a battle.

"Whale disentanglement is an art form. It takes finesse; you have to take the whale's size and behavior into account. You need people with a wide variety of experience including excellent small-boat and rope-handling skills."


Clay George on follow-up efforts

"It's a complex entanglement and the whale has been very evasive when approached on the water, so the odds are against us.

"One rope is embedded in the whale's rostrum and another rope has cut about 15 inches through the left lip. Its unclear whether the whale can even open its mouth. If we can't remove the rope, it will almost certainly die from starvation or infection.

"It's frustrating because we only need to make two cuts to disentangle the whale. Unfortunately, the ropes we need to cut are located on the whales head and it won't let us anywhere near its head. ...

"Whatever happens to this whale, it's important to remember that fishing gear entanglements are a problem for the entire right whale population. Over 70 percent of right whales have scars from previous fishing gear entanglements. At any given time, about 2 percent of the population is chronically entangled in fishing gear.

"The solution to the problem isn't saving each entangled whale. Disentanglement is expensive, often ineffective and dangerous. We need to prevent entanglements from occurring in the first place."


The Nongame Conservation Section of the Georgia DNR's Wildlife Resources Division is part of a special team trained to locate, track and attempt to free north Atlantic right whales entangled in commercial fishing gear. The job is dangerous and requires intense coordination and teamwork.