Gov’t team frees rare, trapped whale

NOAA and its rescue team partners spent New Year’s Eve off South Carolina coast working to free a young endangered right whale entangled in ropes and buoys. The young Atlantic right whale was first spotted on Dec. 6 off the coast of North Carolina with ropes wrapped around its head and other parts of its body. It took off in the open ocean immediately upon being freed from its entanglement. (Click image for larger view of efforts to disentangle right whale. Click here for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please credit Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission/NOAA Fisheries.)

On December 21, a shipboard team located the whale off the coast of Georgia with the help of two aerial surveillance teams—Wildlife Trust aboard a NOAA aircraft and the New England Aquarium. The onwater team, with remote guidance from the Center for Coastal Studies, attached a telemetry buoy to the trailing gear to track the whale’s position. The whale initially headed south to Jacksonville, Fla., but by the time the disentanglement team coordinated a disentanglement attempt (weather, travel time, sea conditions), the whale was off the coast of South Carolina.

After following the whale for some distance, and spending the night on the water with the whale, the disentanglement team attached buoys and sea anchors to control the animal’s movements. At one point, the entangled whale was also towing a NOAA rigid hull inflatable boat. The team was about to use specially constructed tools to remove the lines and other gear, but the line broke free of the whale due to the added drag created by the buoys, anchors and the NOAA inflatable boat. They did not expect to be able to completely disentangle the whale, since this was one of the most severe entanglements they had ever seen. If they had not removed most or all of the rope and gear, they predicted that this endangered whale would have died.

Although the scientists have not identified the whale, they nicknamed him “Yellow Fin,” in honor of the U.S. Coast Guard crew and vessel that assisted in the New Year’s weekend disentanglement. The young 34-foot whale disappeared below the surface of the sea after being freed, and disentanglement team members returned to Charleston with 550 feet of lobster rope.

The North Atlantic right whale is the most endangered off American coasts. After a period of intense whaling in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was on the brink of extinction. Although whaling practices have ceased, right whales face serious risks from ship collisions and entanglements in fishing gear and marine debris. The North Atlantic right whale population is now estimated to be approximately 300 animals and is listed as “Endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Right whales and all other species of marine mammals are protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to protecting and preserving the nation’s living marine resources and their habitat through scientific research, management and enforcement. NOAA Fisheries provides effective stewardship of these resources for the benefit of the nation, supporting coastal communities that depend upon them, and helping to provide safe and healthy seafood to consumers and recreational opportunities for the American public.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine resources. NOAA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.


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