Environment & Science

Whale rescuers seek to find, free humpback tangled in net

A humpback whale breaches off the coast of Long Beach in 2015.
A humpback whale breaches off the coast of Long Beach in 2015.
Nick Ut/AP

A team of marine rescuers continued to worked Sunday to locate and free a humpback whale from a fishing net.  The 30-foot whale was spotted Saturday near Dana Point entangled in the net.

Rescuers attached a buoy that enables them to track the whale’s location in Palos Verdes, where it was first spotted.

“We have antennae out here and receivers honing in on the ping to try to find the whale so we can cut it loose,” said Peter Wallerstein, the president of Marine Animal Rescue.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is leading the efforts to rescue the whale with the help of teams from Marine Animal Rescue, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center and SeaWorld, Wallerstein told KPCC.

The type of humpback whales that feed off of the coast of Southern California are considered to be either a threatened or an endangered species, depending on their stock.

John Hildebrand, a professor at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told KPCC that entanglement in fishing gear is a very common, life threatening problem for humpbacks. 

Whales will run into fishing gear placed near the ocean floor with a line that reaches up to the surface — most often traps used to catch crab — and get their fins or their mouth tangled in the rope, which may stop it from feeding, Hildebrand said.

"Imagine if I wrap you up in some rope that you couldn't take off and, for instance, you couldn't feed. It would be a long-suffering kind of death," Hildebrand said. 

While experts know entanglement is a big threat to whales, there isn't reliable data on exactly how often it happens because it takes place out in the ocean where no one will notice or report the problem. Even when entanglements are reported, untangling whales from fishing gear is a highly specialized and sometimes dangerous job.

"[For] only about ten percent of whales that are entangled there's even an attempt to untangle them, just because it's hard to get a team together and know where the whale is," Hildebrand said. "So the effort that's taking place right now, that whale is actually pretty lucky."

Correction: This story incorrectly said when the whale was first spotted. It was Saturday, not Friday. This story has also been updated to include information from John Hildebrand. KPCC regrets the error.