A dire call about a whale entangled by buoys was made by Alaskan residents who alerted staff at Glacier Bay National Park last October. A scouting team immediately deployed to Icy Strait, in southeast Alaska, where the whale was spotted off the coast of Gustavus.
Working in concert, biologists from the National Park Service (NPS) and staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that a juvenile humpback whale had become entangled in a 450-pound line and two buoys connected to a crab pot that weighed 350 pounds, anchoring it to the seafloor.
As gale-force winds had been forecasted for later that week, a response team was authorized by NOAA. They would aim to perform a rescue within a very tight window of fair weather.
As fortune would have it, highly skilled whale disentanglement expert Dr. Fred Sharpe, from the Alaska Whale Foundation, happened to be visiting nearby Juneau and was flown in the next morning along with a team that he would lead.
NPA research vessel Capelin would get them out to Icy Strait where they would work alongside volunteer Sean Neilson, a licensed drone operator who would zero in on the whale from the air to help identify the specific problem. This visual information would be crucial in their forming a strategy to cut the humpback free.
By 11 a.m., the team had arrived and found the whale close to shore near Pleasant Island, about a mile from where it had been the previous day. The Capelin was towing an inflatable craft that would be used to perform the daring rescue.
Inherently there are risks when operating near a distressed animal that weighs up to 35 tons.
Drone footage revealed that the whale had a loop through its mouth connecting to a gob of tangled line around its tail stalk, effectively hog-tying the animal. Its body was tightly bent, causing it to swim in only clockwise circles. With limited mobility, the whale was diving for seven to nine minutes in between periods of surfacing for just 30 seconds.
The juvenile humpback moved vigorously upon the rescue team’s arrival but soon settled down after getting used to their presence. The team kept their distance and cautiously approached the whale only when opportunities arose. Using a specialized pole fitted with a knife and a grappling hook outfitted with blades, they successfully removed the gear after making several cuts.
The team worked all day until daylight was vanishing. Once the buoys and line had been removed, the animal maintained its curved posture but was expected to adjust back to normal. They deemed it a good sign when the whale, now unhampered, rapidly swam away.
The day after the rescue, NPS biologist Janet Neilson was able to positively identify the juvenile as SEAK-5490 based on photographs of its fluke profile. It had been seen in southeast Alaska in 2021 and 2022 and was first documented at Frederick Sound. It had been measured at 32.5 feet long, suggesting that SEAK-5490 is now 3 to 4 years old.
It’s important if you see a marine mammal or whale that is stranded, injured, dead, or entangled that you do not intervene, according to NPS.
Experts who are highly trained in disentangling whales are properly equipped and have the skills necessary to manage the risks.
The NPS advises: “If you see a stranded, injured, entangled or dead marine mammal in Alaska, immediately call the statewide 24-hour stranding hotline at 877-925-7773 or call the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16.”