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A Whale of a Rescue

Scientists free young whale from fishing gear

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries Service free a young whale from ropes and other fishing gear. (Photo by NOAA)

It took almost a month, but an expert team of whale biologists have finally freed a North Atlantic right whale who was seriously tangled up in fishing lines and ropes and wire mesh off the coast of Florida.

The first stage of the operation involved removing more than 150 feet of ropes wrapped around the whale’s head and fins, and cutting portions of other ropes that she was still caught up in.

“We were very concerned about this whale as the entangling ropes appeared to be life threatening,” said Jamison Smith, Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Coordinator for the Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world, with less than 400 still in existence.

A team from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission first noticed that the whale was in trouble on Christmas Day during a routine aerial survey. Their teams keep an eye on right whales, especially in their only known birthing grounds off the coasts of Georgia and northeast Florida. They alert mariners to the presence of right whales, enabling ships to alter their course to avoid potential collisions with the animals.

This particular whale is about 3 years old and 30 feet long and was last observed almost a year earlier. (One of the most common ways to keep track of who’s who in the world of whales is that each of them has a unique tail shape and pattern.) When last spotted, she was not tangled up in ropes.

In the first stage of the operation, the biologists cut their way through several of the ropes – enough they hoped, for the whale to be able to throw them all off by swimming and diving herself. They would then keep an eye on her and come back if more help was needed.

It turned out that the whale still couldn’t free herself from the ropes. So the team came back on January 15.

The whale had ropes wrapped through her mouth and around her flippers. (Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.)

This time, they used special chemical sedation to calm the whale so that the team could come as close as they needed in order to remove the 50 feet of rope that was still wrapped through her mouth and around her flippers.

This is only the second time a free-swimming whale has been successfully sedated to enable disentanglement efforts. After the operation, the team also administered a dose of antibiotics to treat entanglement wounds, and attached a temporary tag so they can keep an eye on her for the next few weeks.

North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world, with less than 400 still in existence. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fixed fishing gear are the two greatest threats to their recovery. They were first called “right whales” by whalers in the 19th Century, who considered them the right whales to go after.