Cheryl King, TIRN’s Hawaiʻi Director has been an active member of NOAA’s Large Whale Entanglement Response Team since 2008.
January 2018 Whale Rescue Part 1
Thursday, January 11th was just like any other Thursday afternoon: I was working away on my computer when I got the call from Ed Lyman, the head of NOAA’s Large Whale Entanglement Response Team. I immediately jumped up and started moving towards the fridge as I answered his call. The fridge? Yeah, it was 12:27pm and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and I knew I had to get something quick, grab my GO! bag and get out the door. Just as I suspected, our 37-second conversation was long enough for me to verify that I could make it to Maʻalaea Harbor in around 30 minutes to join the rest of the team. After a quick wardrobe change, with a leftover veggie burrito in hand, I said “see ya later” to my dog Tauzer (who really wants to be a part of the team, but hasn’t been trained yet) and jumped into my old rusty but trusty Tacoma.
I live in Kihei on the beautiful island of Maui, and according to Google Maps, it should take me 24 minutes to drive to the harbor. This is ~5 minutes longer than usual since there is a higher than average amount of visitors on Maui in January plus a road closure (bridge repair that has taken far too long to fix, if you ask anyone living nearby). Every minute counts! I get a text from Nicole, one of my best friends, to see if I’m on my way, which makes me happy to hear that she’ll be there too.
I’m pretty sure I was a race car driver in a past life, as the only time I ever get impatient is when there’s too much traffic in my way of getting to where I need to go in an emergency. And, I love to drive fast. These feelings are particularly accentuated when I’m on a rescue call. Red lights are the worst! There are 6 stoplights between my house and the harbor, and half of them are at left hand turns so are almost always red. A little known fun fact about Ed: he’ll plan his whole car outing so he only makes right hand turns. He hates going left too- we have the same methodical brain processing.
After finding a parking space at the busy Maʻalaea Harbor Shops, I grabbed my stuff and jogged the ~200 yards to the boat slip. I walked the plank onto the boat and was greeted by Ed, Nicole, the Captains Ted and Sara, and Grant: the guy who knows nearly every aspect of this project in-and-out and a ~13-year good buddy of mine. Jason, a professional photographer/videographer, was still on his way from Upcountry. He had a lot of left turns and traffic to deal with too…
We started stowing our gear, donning our lifejackets and making sure we had everything. I don’t know how Ed fits all of the hard pelican cases and other gear in his mini Rav4, but he’s had a lot of practice and likely gained some skills from playing Tetris like I did. There are so many moving parts to this whale rescue game! We’re all excited to hear about the details of the whale entanglement, but had to wait until everyone was there so Ed didn’t have to explain multiple times. There has only been one sei whale entanglement reported in Hawaiʻi, as the majority of the whales that are actually seen are North Pacific humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae). The ~12,000 humpbacks that migrate to Hawaiʻi annually are known as “kohola” in Hawaiian, and this is also the name of our NOAA boat.
What is known so far: a fisherman reported finding this humpback attached to 2 buoys and possibly a couple hundred feet of line. It sounds weird to say this, but this is the best scenario: having any buoys (that float) to look for compared to just line (that often sinks and is difficult to see). And, it was only a few miles away so we could get there quickly. We did a safety briefing and were on our way.
Nicole and I start testing the VHF/satellite transmitter that goes onto the tracking buoy. We take the magnet off and listen through headphones for a series of beeps and silence for a certain amount of seconds, and if it’s not working: it’s a similar code but dissimilar enough to notice the difference. Even after all these times, you’d think we would know them by now, but these sequences are just not something we’ve committed to memory so we have a cheat sheet to make sure we get to the result we want. Then it’s all about turning the fine tuning and gain to get the best sound. Now it’s ready to be attached to the buoy, which toolman Grant helps with. We welcome the extra set of hands since this is a critical component to our efforts and we want it to be connected correctly.
Thanks to a calm ocean, we’re at the site quickly and we pulled alongside the Aloha Kai, one of Ultimate Whale Watch’s boats that doubles as our West Maui Response Team. Captain Lee describes the whale’s behavior: regular ~12 minute down times and heading northwest. Nicole and I choose our cameras: she has the Canon with the 500 mm lens and I grab the Mark2 with a 300 mm lens just in time for our first glimpse of the whale’s surfacing. We sit atop the crow’s nest where we also have an iPad set up to record the whale’s behaviors and our actions in a specialized program Ed created.
While Grant, Ted, Jason, and Ed started filling the inflatable with air, we camera gals’ immediate job is to document this individual by taking photos of the ventral side of its fluke, if it raises it high enough before it dives. We also take photos of the rest of the whale’s body when it appears at the surface to document its body condition and any scarring or injuries so we can recognize it. The shape of the dorsal fin is particularly important for everyone to memorize since we don’t always get a view of the fluke if the whale isn’t diving deep. There isn’t often much variation to dorsal fins, and this one was wasn’t anything extraordinary either, but we’d know it when we compared it to others if this whale was every joined by another.
It took a couple of surfacings to be at the right angle to take those perfect whale fluke shots, but we got them. The combined characteristics of the fluke’s shape, trailing edge and coloration patterns (ranging from nearly all white to all black) that show various scars will be sent to the NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory’s scientists who will compare it to their national photo-ID catalog to see if/when/where it’s been reported before. Using photo-ID to track animals (turtles, whalesharks, dolphins, manta rays, etc. etc. plus a wide variety of terrestrial animals) throughout the course of their lifetimes is the best method around if you ask me. I just happen to run the statewide photo-ID catalog for Hawaiian hawksbill sea turtles so I’m a little biased, but seriously- how cool is that concept?!
This whale happened to have my personal favorite coloration: nearly all white. We didn’t see the gear wrapped around the fluke, but it did occasionally drape over the whale’s body since the line was so long. Grant drove the inflatable towards the whale with Ed and Jason so they could use underwater cameras to get a view of how the whale was entangled. After a bit of maneuvering and multiple approaches, the conclusion was that the line was only going through the mouth (not around any appendages), trailing from both sides. Now we knew what we were dealing with.
First order of business: cut some of that long trailing line so it wouldn’t be accidentally caught in our boat propellers plus attach a “kegging buoy” and small sea anchor to gradually slow the whale down and to keep the line floating and visible. This line, which was coming out of the right side of the whale’s mouth, would be our “working line”. Ed, Grant and Jason accomplished this first part rather quickly when the whale was at the surface by picking up the line with the buoys, pulling themselves forward until they were just behind the fluke and cutting the line there.
Around then was when the whale’s behavior started changing. Instead of diving regularly, it became very active at the surface: occasionally breaching, swishing its fluke around, rolling over, doing pectoral slaps, etc. The inflatable left the whale and approached us to explain that they could see two other whales swimming ~50 feet underneath our whale. We had certainly documented others in the area, but we hadn’t known this, which just goes to show how little we can see of their worlds. If only we knew what was going on in these animals’ minds… And we could communicate with them to let them know we were trying to help!
It was nearing 3pm by this time, and all we could do was watch (while photographing and filming) as the whale continued to be active at the surface. Patience… These behaviors would make for an impossible approach to cut that line close to the mouth and we didn’t want to make a cut that left that much line. Eventually, the whale started swimming back towards Maui from offshore. This was our chance. Lucky me- I got to switch roles with Jason and jump in the inflatable with Ed and Grant to assess what this was doing to the line and see if we could get a hold of the other line, plus add the tracking buoy. Equipped with carabiners, short lines, the buoys, poles, and cutting grapple, we sped off towards the whale.
Regardless how many times we’ve done it, there’s still nothing like motoring along in a small boat directly behind an adult humpback whale to get your heart pumping. It may seem extreme to others, but we’ve all been in this and similar situations with animals for so many years that it’s almost like it’s “no big deal” now. We’re simply focused on our mission. It’s not something we take for granted, but the impact of what we’re trying to do and how we’re going to do it is something that you don’t really think about it until it’s over…
After a few surfacings, we still couldn’t get a hand on the line that was emerging from the left side of its mouth- it didn’t float high enough. We quickly realized that the first sea anchor had somehow come off, so we added another. As the whale slowed its swimming and became more surface active again, Grant drove us away from the fluke and around towards the head of the whale as Ed pulled on the line to see if we could somehow work it free from the mouth. This action did eventually slip it up so that the line on the left side pulled through the mouth so now our trailing line on the right was much longer. We held on for our Nantucket sleigh ride as long as we could until we had to let go as the whale would dive. It just wouldn’t come all the way free of the whale’s mouth for some reason, which was frustrating.
We were able to grab our working line again and attach the tracking buoy, which was a relief since the ocean was getting much choppier and we were approaching sunset time. We regrouped with the Kohola, and then the whale’s behavior changed again: it started swimming faster, still towards Maui though, which we wanted since we had to go that way too. It started pulling the heavy tracking buoy under as it swam, and we almost lost it a few times as it surfaced well away from where it dove. Luckily, we had all of our support boats spread out to find it: the Kohola, Aloha Kai, the Coast Guard, and the NOAA OLE (Office of Law Enforcement). The swimming power of humpback whales is astounding.
We then decided our best plan of action was to switch the sea anchor with the large fluorescent orange buoy that was on before, which would aid in our re-sighting of the animal tomorrow since we were running out of time and options today. When it was spotted again, we motored towards it and watched the fluorescent green tracking buoy submerge. We somehow successfully followed the little green speck underwater so we’d be in the right spot immediately as it surfaced. We had to work quickly to make the switch and ensure all of our attachments were to the carabiners with galvanic releases that would dissolve in ~10 days in case we weren’t able to get to the whale again. Feeling good about doing that but of course disappointed that we weren’t able to totally free the whale from the gear, we had to leave it for the night and head back to the harbor before dark. Patience…
All we could do was hope that the whale would remain in the area overnight for us to have another chance early the next day, and be fully recharged (us and the camera batteries) to try again. We planned on arriving at the boat at 7:30am (Friday, January 12th) unless the whale completely left the area or the satellite tracking buoy malfunctioned or fell off… We quickly washed the boat and unloaded the gear, made a quick “needs” list so we could head out since Ed had a long night of downloading photos/videos in addition to communicating with his supervisors and others about our progress. I certainly didn’t envy him, but we all had our day’s happenings to catch up on too. At least the drive home was nearly all right turns, except for a quick stop to get fuel for the inflatable.
January 2018 Whale Rescue Part 2
We heard from Ed that our whale was still in Maʻalaea Bay at ~10pm, so went to sleep feeling good about the next morning’s mission. As of ~5:30am, it had slowly made its way towards Wailea, so Plan A was still a go. I had planned to do a snorkel transect with some of my awesome volunteers, but that would have to wait. Driving to the harbor that morning had a much different feel from when I was racing to get there ~18 hours before. I’d say we were all more prepared for whatever the day would bring, and excited to help the whale! It was another lovely Maui day and we were forecasted to have favorable ocean conditions. The biggest unknown now: we simply didn’t know where the whale would lead us.
Friday’s crew consisted of Ed, Ted, Lee, Jason, Jeff (a part-time Maui resident who does various whale-related activities all over the world), Nicole, and myself. After another favorable GAR, Ted piloted the Kohola out of the harbor, in the wakes of the many Molokini-bound snorkel boats. As fast as we wanted to go to get there as quickly as possible, we of course had to watch out for the numerous whales along the way. Typical peak whale season (February) was approaching! Being winter, there was a slight chill in the ~72° air, but that would burn off soon after the sun rose above Haleakala. Since the winds were light, the ocean’s surface was glassy, which allowed the whales’ blows and “fingerprints” (the slick water area left after a whale dives) to linger longer. These conditions also revealed numerous marine debris items floating around us at one point. We were on a mission though, so that would have to wait (more on that later).
The last satellite tracking waypoint revealed that our whale was about halfway between Makena State Park and Molokini. As we’ve experienced in the past, our listening for the VHF signal was again outdone by us spotting the transmitter buoy pop to the surface. That was a relief! The buoy was still attached to the whale, which was half the battle. Nicole and I assumed the same photography roles as yesterday while Ed and Jason prepared their cameras to do a repeat as the day before: get underwater footage to see what the gear looked like now. Jeff had an expensive-looking video camera onboard, so we were all ready to fully document the day.
None of the photos or footage had revealed whether our whale was a male or female, but regardless- it was now being accompanied by another adult whale. This could make things tricky, depending on how they both react to us today. This new whale also had a nearly all-white fluke, though it was slightly more elongated. We quickly re-familiarized ourselves with our whale’s fluke and dorsal fin and then committed to memory the new whale’s appearances. When they surfaced together, often in unison, they looked just distinctive enough to tell who was who. The buoys were barely moving, meaning they weren’t swimming in any constant direction yet.
Watching whales perform what anthropomorphically appears to us as a synchronized underwater ballet performance is a stunning vision- they’re so graceful! What they’re actually “doing” down there is a mystery. What are they communicating to each other? We can only imagine… These two whales weren’t singing, as we’d hear/feel that through the hull of our boat (which is so incredible!). Marine mammals are tactile animals and they make full use of the underwater realm to flip around and around in all different directions and orientations and poses as if gravity has no effect on them. I love it when they remain nearly motionless or move in “slow motion”, suspended peacefully together in the blue. This certainly isn’t always the case- it’s a wild ocean with so many factors that influence survival behaviors. When a competitive pod develops, the opposite of anything resembling tranquility materializes as multiple males pursue a female to compete for their opportunity to mate with her. There are high-speed chases with aggressive surface and underwater displays that can even be deadly. I digress… Back to our mission at hand.
Jason and Ed were able to get decent footage of the whales by slowly motoring up to the buoys and looking down. Since blue is my favorite color, I’m always mesmerized by the crystal clear azure water here in Hawaiʻi. Surprisingly, video proof of the actual acts of mating and giving birth (the top two reasons why the humpbacks come to the warm, relatively shallow Hawaiian waters) still hasn’t been acquired yet. Why does the lower latitude, deep ocean appear so blue? We don’t have many nutrients and microorganisms, and subsequently most of the light spectrum (starting with the reds, oranges and yellows…) gets absorbed uninterrupted, not reflected and scattered by particles. Directly relating to whales, our waters can’t support enough food for the humpbacks while they’re here. So, they make that long migration back to regions like Alaska or British Columbia when their Hawaiian vacation ends. We hypothesize that since these higher latitude waters are significantly more turbid due to the rich nutrients and especially the critters that they’re focused on eating, the whales may not detect the fishing gear through the typically greenish water. Adding evidence to this, the gear going through our whale’s mouth had been used in the British Columbia crab pot industry.
To confirm what we believed yesterday, we had pulled most of the line from the left to the right so now we just had to move close enough to cut that line as close to the mouth as possible if we couldn’t get it all out. The footage of the line didn’t show any large knots that would be causing it to stop at that point, but sliding anything between baleen plates isn’t an easy feat. And we certainly never want to cause damage to its baleen if we can help it. Ed explained that during our potentially stress-inducing encounter with it yesterday, its mouth likely “clamped down” on the line. Ideally, the line had loosened some overnight as the whale relaxed. The weight of the buoys and line was still tugging on it as it swam, so that was also a factor in our favor.
The plan was decided that we’d attempt the same technique as we did yesterday: motor up to the right side of the whale while gently tugging on the line from that angle and hope for the best. Since Grant was working and couldn’t join us, Ed was the inflatable captain, Lee took his spot on the bow and Nicole was in the middle where I was. As they released the lines from our starboard cleats and stowed them away, we all silently hoped the whales would remain in a mellow state to allow for easy approaches.
Aboard the Kohola, we kept our distance as to not affect the operation, but also had a cutting grapple and line in a bucket attached to the bow in case we needed to rush into the scene to cut someone free who got accidentally wrapped or attached somehow. We never know what could happen at the blink of an eye, therefore we train for the unknowns… Safety first!
Jeff, Jason and I were armed and ready with our cameras to record what we all outwardly expressed trepidation about: the surface-active behaviors we witnessed yesterday. We simply couldn’t predict what the whales were going to do when that line got tugged for the first, second or tenth time, nonetheless we all had a collective feeling that it was going to be dramatic. These whales had >12 minute down times, so the long whale waiting was broken up by needing to call two boats over the radio with our requests to give us a ~1/2 mile buffer zone. We were now within the beeline path for tour boats leaving Molokini to seek out their second snorkel site, which was often a “Turtle Town” of their own designation. Due to the outreach efforts of Ed and NOAA plus the longevity and successes of the program, most of Maui’s commercial boat operators are pretty knowledgeable about our activities and respectful towards our operations. Who wouldn’t want us to free the whale?
It was going on 17 minutes since the whales were at the surface last, and we were getting antsy watching Lee “jig” the line over and over as if he was fishing. All of a sudden, we watched a whale catapult into the air in a tremendous breach that we all caught on camera/film since we were anticipating something exciting happen. Initially, it wasn’t clear which whale was breaching until it did it again and the inflatable team held the line in their hands over their head showing us they had it all. Ed radioed, “guys, we just freed the whale”, in his usual calm tone. We cheered as the whale continued to breach over and over nearby, making for perfect “success” photos. It wasn’t until its breaches turned to less dramatic but still thrilling head slaps to slowly rolling over with some pectoral slaps, and then finally a slow fluke dive that we confirmed 100% that it was our whale that was now freed.
January 2018 Rescue Part 3: Battling marine debris…Coming soon!