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More Than 120 Feet of Line Cut From Entangled Humpback Whale

By Tiffany DeMasters
March 11, 2021, 3:06 PM HST
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More than 100 feet of line was cut off a subadult humpback whale found entangled off of Maui earlier this week.

The whale was reported to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service and Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary on March 9 by tour vessels Teralani and Wahine Hana off Lahaina. The animal was entangled in a small gauge line through its mouth and around its left pectoral flipper. This gear trailed as a pair of lines approximately 50 feet behind the whale.

As resources and conditions allowed, COVID-19 safety criteria were met, and chain-of-command approvals were obtained, an authorized, highly-experienced response team got underway onboard Ultimate Whale Watch’s dedicated research and response vessel, Aloha Kai.

“People coming together to help an animal — you can’t get much better than that,” said Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s Ed Lyman, who was part of the collaborative response team.

Lyman told Big Island Now he heard the animal was in bad shape but didn’t realize the extent of its condition till he got on scene.

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary/ NOAA MMHSRP (permit # 18786-05)
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Lyman explained the whale was emaciated. Its skin was rough and covered in white patches. The team made several approaches to the animal from the Aloha Kai, with the Koholā and Keiki Koholā Project vessels acting as safety support. Two cuts to the line were made allowing the team to remove approximately 120 feet of line. However, a small amount of gear, approximately 35 feet, remains in the whale’s mouth as it could not be pulled free.

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“We’re under no allusion that we’re going to save a whale,” Lyman said referring to the team’s work in addressing entanglements. “At least we’re giving it a chance.”

Lyman said the gear found on the animal looked local, but he couldn’t be sure. Any time the team is able to recover the lines entangling whales it gives them data that might help them reduce entanglement threats in the future.

“It could be nothing more than marine debris,” he said.

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Allen Tom, NOAA superintendent of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said any time they learn of an entangled sea animal it’s heartbreaking.

Tom and Lyman emphasize the importance of reporting these situations. It was determined that the entangled whale was the same as was reported nearly a month ago off the Kīhei boat ramp. However, the sanctuary and its partners did not receive reports immediately, and while a search was conducted days after the report, the animal was not relocated at that time.

Lyman said it’s crucial to the team to receive these reports in a timely manner as it increases the whale’s chance of survival.

“It’s human nature to want to jump in the water to help, but it’s dangerous,” Tom said.

Instead of attempting to help the whale, Tom asks people to be their eyes and ears, “because we can’t be everywhere at once.”

Mariners who sight marine mammals in distress are urged not to go in the water and to maintain a 100 yards distance. Call the NOAA 24/7 Marine Wildlife Hotline at 888 256-9840. If unable to call, radio the US Coast Guard on VHF CH. 16 and they will relay the report.

Officials remind the public it is illegal to approach a humpback whale closer than 100 yards by any means by sea and 1,000 feet by aircraft or drone.

March 9’s response, coordinated by NOAA Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary working with and under the authorization of NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program included personnel from the sanctuary, Cardinal Point Captains, Ultimate Whale Watch under the West Maui Rapid Response team, Keiki Koholā Project, and others.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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