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Entangled Humpback Whale Swims Free in Alaska, Netting in Tow

Sep 07, 2013 07:48 AM EDT
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Entangled humpback whale with gillnet near its blowhole.
Amid rough seas and precarious behavior, rescue workers further disentangled a stranded humpback whale Friday, ultimately getting the creature to a point where it could use its tail and pectoral fins to swim away. The whale had been ensnared for more than two weeks in a mess of gillnet and other fishing gear of the coast of southeastern Alaska.
(Photo : NOAA Fisheries, NMFS permit #932-1905.)

Amid rough seas and difficult conditions, rescue workers further disentangled a stranded humpback whale Friday, ultimately getting the creature to a point where it could use its tail and pectoral fins to swim away. The whale had been ensnared for more than two weeks in a mess of gillnet and other fishing gear of the coast of southeastern Alaska.

The whale reportedly swam free after an intense week of rescue attempts, however it was not completely disentangled -- a mass of rope around its head near the blowhole area remained, tethered to at as many as 30 fathoms (180 feet) of netting.

"The tail and pectoral fins are free of gear, but the necklace of line behind the blowhole remains," said Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation, a partner in NOAA Fisheries Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network, adding that a satellite telemetry buoy which was attached to the mammal at the beginning of the rescue operation was detached.

The whale was first reported trapped in gillnetting near Petersburg, about 160 miles south of Juneau on Aug. 23.

It took more than a week before a rescue attempt could be launched and rough seas hampered the effort. On Tuesday crews had to suspend operations because of unfavorable conditions at sea and because the whale had become distressed and evasive.

"This is a difficult entanglement. Much of the gear is underneath the whale, so it is challenging to access both visually and physically," Aleria Jensen, NOAA's lead for the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network said Tuesday.

Friday Jensen reported that the rescue operation had ended and that the whale was as free as it could be.

"We have exhausted all appropriate techniques presently available to us in this very challenging disentanglement effort," Jensen said. "This full-grown, adult, humpback whale is still in robust condition, and was last seen swimming vigorously, and remains strong. It is likely that less than 30 fathoms of gear remain trailing on the animal. The entanglement is not immediately life threatening, and our hope is that the whale can now shed the remaining gear on its own."

NOAA Fisheries is asking that any mariners who see the whale to steer clear of it and to not attempt any unauthorized rescue attempts.

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