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Conservation | Mammals

Sunday, January 04, 2009


We knew the whale was in trouble. From our research platform at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center on the cliffs of Palos Verdes, we could see distress in the movements of the gray whale. The young cetacean’s curiosity about the lobster trap had led it into a life or death struggle as the buoy set fast in its baleen. Below, on the other end of the line, the trap started to wedge itself in the rocks as it was dragged along the ocean floor by the whale’s frantic movements.

“Hugh, the buoy is caught in his mouth”, Fran yelled to me as she watched the whale through her Fujinon binoculars, “It’s anchoring him to the bottom!”

Our morning whale research crew consisting of veteran whale spotter Fran, my wife, Pam, and me had watched and recorded the gray whale’s initial approach to the lobster traps off Point Vicente.

It had at first swum around the dozens of floats and lines of the traps as if they were part of a kelp forest. Then for reasons only the whale knew it had decided to taste the line of one trap. The rope easily filtered through the flexible baleen of the gray. The float however lodged firmly in its mouth—too large and hard to pass through the baleen. Made up of a single strand of rope with a colored plastic buoy attached on one end and a picnic basket sized metal cage attached on the other, the profitable traps had never before been much of a hazard to the gray whales on their migration from frigid Alaskan wasters to the warm lagoons of Baja California, Mexico and back. Again and again the whale breached trying to dislodge the foreign object now embedded in its baleen. The effort only served to wrap the line around the body of the large cetacean, slowly drawing it closer to death.

Pam made frantic calls using the center’s office phone (this was before the days of widespread cell phone use) to different agencies as she tried to find someone to help the distressed beast. No one seemed to know what to do about an entangled whale, The new marine mammal facility, the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur, located down the coast in San Pedro was not yet operational. Finally in desperation Pam called the Los Angeles County Lifeguards, popularly known as Bay Watch. They responded immediately. A lifeguard and his deckhand set out from Redondo Beach in a rescue boat.

As they neared Point Vicente, they were guided to the whale by the emergency marine radio of the research team. In previous years we had used the radio to help save boaters and planes in distress by summoning the Coast Guard and Bay Watch to their aid. Now we hoped to use the radio to help save a thirty-five foot whale! Using the compass and range reticules in my Fujinon binoculars I called out the whale’s bearing and ranges to Fran which she relayed to the approaching boat which used the coordinates to find the distressed whale. GPS was not in mainstream civilian use yet so we had to use the old “Mark One” eyeballs and mental range and compass heading calculations to lead them to the cetacean.

The Lifeguard arrived on the scene just as the whale had begun to tire. The intervals between the whale’s attempts at freeing itself by breaching had becoming longer. As his deckhand positioned the boat, the lifeguard dove in next to the whale to assess the situation. By this time, the whale has so entangled itself that it barely had enough slack to bring it’s blowhole to the surface to breath. The lifeguard attempted to free dive to the line to cut it free. The thrashing of the whale made it difficult and dangerous. The powerful tail could easily kill a man. Three times he dove and each time the whale’s movement had caused failure.

Suddenly, we saw him break the surface, a third of his body coming out of the water. At first we thought that the whale’s flukes had swatted him upward. However it was actually his exuberance that had caused him to shoot to the surface. Finally, on his fourth attempt, he had managed to cut the line!

The whale, suddenly freed, swam slowly at first, the buoy and cut line trailing behind it. The Bay Watch boat followed the whale for awhile to make sure it was out of danger, and then headed back to their base in Redondo Beach.

“That was better than anything David Hasselhoff could do”, I joked to Fran and Pam, referring to the television series Bay Watch. “Good Job!” Fran radioed to the lifeguard.

The whale, after resting for a while in a cove, continued on its journey back from Baja. As it headed to the horizon we took a final bearing and range on the animal and then checked it off on our cetacean sighting report.

A few days later Pam and I presented a Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project patch to the lifeguard in appreciation for his whale rescue.

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