Dangerous work of rescuing trapped whales

November 24, 2008 7:41:26 PM PST
There is a specialized program underway in California to keep whales from dying in distress. It is a rescue program that scientists do not want you to try on your own. It was formalized just a couple of years ago, organized by NOAA fisheries. This fall's training seminar was held in Monterey. ABC7 News spoke exclusively with some of the people involved in the response team.

ABC7 News had the opportunity to learn first-hand about the many whales that are visiting Monterey Bay right now and the challenges they face. Our guide was Peggy Stap, a researcher with Marine Life Studies. She is documenting marine life with her colleague Duane O'Sullivan and ship's captain, Jim "Homer" Holm.

Stap does her work under the authority of the National Marine Fisheries Service and is required to have a permit to do this work.

"We look for a big puff of smoke... it looks that way, it's not really. It's just their breath vaporizing as they come exhaling at the surface," explained Stap.

Stap is one of the members of the new Whale Entanglement Team, called W.E.T. for short, to help rescue whales caught in fishing gear.

It is extremely dangerous work, done from a small boat. The W.E.T. teams are a coalition of marine professionals, research and conservation organizations, and academic institutions under federal authorization from NOAA fisheries. The W.E.T. team never gets in the water.

"We're dealing with a 45-ton animal who is distressed. He's wrapped in a line and is not a particularly happy animal. They could very easily turn on you," said research biologist Pieter Folkens.

Folkens, who is with the Alaska Whale Foundation, and photographer and filmmaker Robert Talbot are also responders with the W.E.T. team. They have extensive experience working professionally with whales.

"In 1985, we responded to a call of a whale stuck in a net off Dana Point. In the process of trying to get that whale out of the net, I got tangled with the whale," said Talbot. "So, when NOAA decided to put this program in place, I was very eager to be a part of it."

"The East Coast Disentanglement Network has designed a number of very special flying knives like this that are designed specifically for working with lines that are wrapped around the whale where we can get it in, underneath the line, and then rotate it around, attach the end of this to a buoy, so as the whale dives, the buoy stays floating, and as the whale is diving down, it cuts through line," said Folkens.

Video of the magnificent creatures moving underwater is made possible by a critter cam. It is a special camera placed on the whale's back by Folkens and Fred Sharpe, from the Alaska Whale Foundation, and Greg Marshall, inventor of the critter cam with the National Geographic Society.

The disentanglement team is already saving whales from a slow, miserable death, thanks to the formalized W.E.T. program, specialized training, and unique tools. They need the public to help keep them informed.

"If they see an entangled animal, call the Coast Guard, or call the National Marine Fisheries, or NOAA enforcement, so that they can contact the trained teams to come out and help the animals as soon as possible," said Folkens.

"When you see that net fall away from the whale and that whale swims off, it's a great feeling. You feel like you're really doing something and having an effect right now," said Talbot.

If you see a marine mammal in trouble, call the National Marine Fisheries Service at 800-853-1964.

For more information, including links to some educational resources, read The Back Story.


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