Entangled young humpback whale freed in Big Island waters

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A young humpback whale in Big Island waters that was entangled in small gauge rope and netting wrapped tightly and embedded around its tailstock, with a bundle of gear and two buoys behind its fluke, was freed Jan. 31 by a team of trained responders led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The young humpback whale after being freed from an entanglement in waters off the Big Island. Image credit: D. Fukushima/NOAA MMHSRP (permit no. 24359)

The whale was located in waters off Kona near Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport, which is in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The location and type of the entanglement meant the animal would likely not be able to free itself, threatening its life.

The whale was first reported late Monday (Jan. 30) by Kona tour boat operator Ocean Sports in waters off of the Mauna Lani resort; however, because of the time of day, a response was not possible. On Tuesday, Ocean Encounters, another Kona tour boat operation, sighted the whale again near the Kona airport and stood by until responders could arrive.

Authorized and trained responder Colin Cornforth with some of the entangling gear removed from the humpback whale. Image credit: B. Lonergan/NOAA MMHSRP (permit no. 24359)

The NOAA-led team aboard the Captain Zodiac response vessel left at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday from Honokōhau Harbor to document and assess the animal. After assessment and real-time, offsite consultation with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary team, the team prepared a hooked knife on the end of a 30-foot carbon-fiber pole to get close enough to make a cut.


They proceeded to make calculated cuts to the entangling line, removing two buoys and roughly 100 feet of line and netting. The whale is thought to be fully disentangled with some non-wrapping embedded lines that will hopefully be shed with time.

While the animal is no longer in danger and entangled, the impacts of the entanglement remain. The whale was in poor condition, emaciated and suffering physical trauma. However, thanks to the efforts of the response team and those who reported the situation, the young humpback now has a much better chance of survival.

The recovered gear will be assessed to determine its origin and use to better understand the entanglement risk and reduce the threat of future entanglements.


Mariners are asked to keep a sharp lookout for whales in distress, but not to approach closely or attempt to assist them. NOAA-authorized responders are the only individuals permitted to assist entangled whales and other marine mammals in coordination with federal laws. Immediately reporting an entangled or otherwise injured or distressed whale is the best way to help the animal.

If you see an injured or entangled marine mammal, call the statewide NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at 888-256-9840 or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 immediately. To report a vessel coming too close to a whale, call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at 800-853-1964, email [email protected] or call your local Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement office.

Another view of the entangled young humpback whale in waters off West Hawai‘i. Image credit: D. Fukushima/NOAA MMHSRP (permit no. 24359)

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