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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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Rescuers take a “Nantucket sleigh ride.”

photo: courtesy noaa

Unlike the whalers, who pursued their prey in wooden skiffs, the disentanglers use Zodiacs, inflatable boats with soft hulls that won’t leave bruises if boat and whale collide. The first “keg” the disentanglers attach is something 19th century whalers couldn’t have imagined: a telemetry buoy, loaded with satellite, GPS and VHS radio transmitters. Disentanglement efforts can stretch on for days, and the high-tech buoy ensures the animal won’t give rescuers the slip.

Disentanglement can be surprisingly dirty work. Sick whales may be infested with sea lice, tiny, biting crablike creatures that also coat the entangling gear and, consequently, the rescuers hauling the gear into the Zodiac. Whales with respiratory infections blow mucus-laden mist from their blow holes, which also coats the rescuers.

Since 2003, when NOAA’s disentanglement effort began, rescuers have freed 15 humpbacks and one sei whale. Altogether, they have removed more than 6,700 feet of gear. About a third of it has been traced to Alaska, where humpbacks spend the summer. In three cases, the Alaskan gear actually included floats marked with fishing license numbers, which enabled Lyman to track down the fishermen who lost it and pinpoint when and exactly where the whales became ensnared. “The fishermen are very helpful,” Lyman says. “They hate the fact that they caught a whale.”

Thoroughly documenting the gear may help influence federal fishing regulations that reduce the likelihood of whale entanglements. This has already happened in Massachusetts, where NOAA, after determining that whales frequently became tangled there in the floating lines holding together strings of lobster pots and crab traps, created a rule requiring the use of sinking lines.

“We’re never going to free all of the entangled whales,” Lyman says. “We do want to free some entangled animals, especially ones in life-threatening situations. But the ultimate goal is to gain information toward prevention.”

Fur Seal Via FedEx

What became of the Northern fur seal found on the North Shore? After spending two nights at the Honolulu Zoo and receiving a blessing from a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, she was put on a FedEx flight to California and delivered to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. There she was tested for morbillivirus (she didn’t have it) and nursed back to health. After two and a half weeks, she was set free. In a YouTube video of the release, you can see her stumble out of her cage, look around for a moment then bolt for the sea.

A radio tag attached to her back allowed scientists to track her, and her course alarmed them as she swam several hundred miles to the southwest—toward Hawaii. She was about a third of the way back when she suddenly changed course and headed toward Mexico, much to the relief of Schofield, the Marine Mammal Response Network coordinator.

“There was a moment,” he says, “when we were like, Oh, no, here we go again.”


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Honolulu Magazine April 2018
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