humpback whales

Large Whale Disentanglement Training

By Bob Friel

A whale rescue team aboard SeaDoc’s research boat Molly B takes part in an entanglement training scenario. Photo by Bob Friel. 

A whale rescue team aboard SeaDoc’s research boat Molly B takes part in an entanglement training scenario. Photo by Bob Friel. 

For the Salish Sea, 2016 has been the Summer of the Humpback. Normally we see a small handful of humpback whales hang around all season, with others passing through in spring and fall, but this year more than 70 of the huge, pickle-faced cetaceans spent the entire summer feeding and frolicking in local waters.

While the number of big whales is a boon for whale watchers because our endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales have been forced to roam far and wide in search of fewer and fewer salmon, it’s also drawn attention to how we, as a region, are woefully unprepared to handle some of the issues that accompany burgeoning populations of large whales.

California has seen a similar increase in humpbacks showing up inshore, which is where the whales come into contact with fishing gear. Entangled as they swim through lobster lines or when curious calves get caught up playing with crab floats, the whales are liable to get wrapped in super strong synthetic lines that hinder their swimming, anchor them to the bottom, or even slice their tails off.

On the East Coast, half the humpback population shows scars from run-ins with manmade obstacles. And since the Salish Sea’s summertime whale influx coincides with the laying of gillnets and many miles of line connected to crab and shrimp pots, it’s likely only a matter of time before we wind up with a snared humpback or, even worse, a tangled resident orca.

In order to begin assembling a team prepared to respond to large whales in trouble, SeaDoc and Whale Museum staff joined local Marine Mammal Stranding Network volunteers and officials from NOAA for a full day of training on how to document and evaluate these dangerous situations. The group then ran on-water scenarios using a Washington Fish & Wildlife boat as stand-in for a 40-ton entangled humpback. Trainees practiced throwing special grappling hooks to snare trailing lines and attached telemetry buoys to track the "whale" by satellite and VHF.

This was just the first step in getting ready for problems we hope we never see but must be prepared for. For now, sighting and documenting issues is the priority, and it’s something everyone can be involved in. So while you’re enjoying watching our local whales, keep an eye out for any that appear entangled or seem in distress. If you spot something, keep your required distance (100 yards for humpbacks; 200 yards for resident orcas) but get photos or video, and call the hotline at: 877-SOS-WHALE.