911 for the Life Aquatic: Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Response Network

For dolphins, whales or seals in bad situations, Hawaii’s Marine Mammal Response Network knows just what to do.


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Entangled whales can carry clues. The float on this humpback, photographed off Maui, identified the Alaskan fisherman who lost it.

photo: courtesy noaa

Dangerous Disentanglements

In addition to investigating whale deaths, the Marine Mammal Response Network investigates reported collisions between ships and whales, though usually there’s little to be done aside from documenting the event. It also amasses data on the types of marine debris in which whales become entangled, with an eye toward reducing future entanglements. And sometimes—in the most adrenaline-filled part of its mission—it cuts entangled whales free.

Whales periodically get tied up in fishing gear, mooring lines and other man-made objects. Sometimes the animals can shake off the problem themselves, but not always. Hopelessly entangled whales can starve, drown or succumb to infections that develop where taut ropes cut into their skin.

About 80 people throughout Hawaii have been trained through the marine mammal network to help with disentanglements in various roles, from taking notes to driving support boats. The disentanglement elite—those authorized by NOAA to actually make contact with whales, and trained to do so without getting killed—includes about a dozen NOAA personnel.

Whale disentanglement is dangerous work. In 2003, a New Zealand fishermen trying to free a 40-foot humpback caught in cray-pot lines died when the whale began to thrash and struck him with its tail.

Ed Lyman, coordinator of the network’s disentanglement program, says Hawaii’s whale rescuers learn to recognize the precursors of aggression and to quickly get out of the whale’s personal space when they detect them. Bubble blowing, tail swishing and the loud, wheezy exhales known as “trumpeting” are all signs of an irritated whale. “They give you a warning before they throw a punch,” Lyman says. “We try to be methodical and not surprise them, but they have their limits. We don’t want to take too long.”

Ed Lyman, with grappling hook, and fishing gear removed from a whale.

As a scientist, Lyman is cautious about presuming what goes on in the minds of the whales the rescuers try to help. On the other hand, “Sometimes they seem to know what we’re up to,” he says.

Disentanglers draw upon the techniques of the Yankee whalers, who hunted whales to near extinction in the 19th century. In a reprise of the “Nantucket sleigh ride,” the rescuers stick close to the whale by hitching their boat to the swimming animal and towing along behind it. The rescuers have also put a modern twist on the practice of “kegging,” substituting inflatable buoys, called polyballs, for the wooden barrels the whalers used to put the brakes on the swimming animals. Whereas the whalers plunged harpoons into the whale to attach their boat and barrels, the disentanglers toss grappling hooks into the entangling gear.

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