LIHUE — Large whales can be traveling at 10 miles per hour when Ed Lyman gets close enough to launch a gaff into the marine debris in which they’re entangled.
Once he’s connected to the whale, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary primary entanglement responder and his team hook polyball buoys to the control line, which slows the whale enough that it stays at the surface.
“What we’re doing is taking kegging, an ancient whaling technique, and modifying it for our purposes,” Lyman said. “Instead of a lance at the end, once the whale tires out, we use a hook knife to reach out, grab the line and make the cut.”
Once the whale is cut free, the kegging buoys are connected to the entanglement debris, which is scavenged from the sea for study.
That’s because learning about whales and entanglement is the mission behind the sanctuary’s entanglement response program, along with saving lives.
“That’s the broad nature of this effort,” Lyman said. “Basically we’re gaining information, so there’s science behind the response and it’s everything.”
The network of trained responders seeks to discover how and why whales become entangled, how it affects the individual and the population as a whole, and response methods.
“We don’t call it the disentanglement program, we call it entanglement response. Part of it is responding to assess the condition and our ability to respond,” said Jean Souza, Kauai programs coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
The entanglement response program got its start in the early 2000s as a formal network. Hundreds of members strong, it partners with the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Responding to whale entanglement, especially when the goal is to cut the whale free, is a dangerous job. Lyman’s entanglement responders all have to go through training before they’re added to the network.
The general public should not attempt to cut an entangled whale free themselves.
“Globally there’s been several instances where people with good intentions get hurt, and it’s better to have people that know what they’re doing” respond to an entanglement, Lyman said.
He continued: “I’ll tell ya, your best Olympic swimmer isn’t going to keep up with even an entangled whale.”
But Lyman does need the general public’s help when it comes to spotting and monitoring entangled whales. That’s where the first level of the effort begins.
“That level of first response is finding the animal, reporting it and getting that photo documentation,” Lyman said. “Take as many photos of the animal as you can, if you’re able and it’s safe.”
Tour companies and fishermen, for instance, have become integral to this stage of entanglement response.
“They’re a big needle in an even bigger haystack in the North Pacific,” Lyman said. “So when we’re responding, if the party is able and it’s safe, we’ll ask them to monitor the whale.”
A decade ago, the general thought was that the whales were becoming entangled in Alaska and dragging the gear 2,000 nautical miles with them to Hawaii, but Lyman said that’s only half the story.
“We’ve realized they’re getting entangled in local gear as well,” Lyman said.
The gear in Alaska is more robust because it has to handle the harsh conditions of the Bering Sea. The gear in Hawaii doesn’t need to be as robust, which means it breaks down faster, making it unidentifiable.
“Now, we’ve got a whale with a bit of line wrapped around it and no way of knowing what it is,” Lyman said. “We’ve gotten better at identifying those pieces of line.”
That’s helpful for fishermen, Lyman said, because it helps them find ways to avoid catching a whale.
“Most fishermen are conservationists and they care about the environment,” Lyman said. “They don’t want to catch a whale. And they lose their gear so it’s bad news overall.”
There are also efforts on the other end to retrieve lost gear and nets from beaches once they’ve washed up.
Surfrider removed 45,000 pounds of nets off Kauai beaches in 2016, said Barbara Wiedner, vice president of Surfrider’s Kauai chapter.
“We remove them so they don’t go back in the ocean and kill or injure marine life,” Wiedner said.
While the entanglement response program has cut free 22 large whales in its time, as well as many other responses, a whale has yet to be cut free in Kauai’s waters.
“It has nothing to do with our efforts or the community,” Lyman said. “Kauai is a round island with little protection and it’s been ring-around-the-rosie there. The needle doesn’t want to hold still.”
Whales can also decide to go to Niihau and then over to Oahu or Maui, and the multiple variables make it challenging.
“We’ve just got to keep trying,” Lyman said. “It’s the nature of the effort.”
What to look for, do
Whales that are sick or entangled are usually underweight and slightly lighter in color than healthy whales. Typically they are rougher skinned as well and there could be ivory or red and orange coloration on the body.
“People think that’s a wound a lot of times, but it’s actually whale lice,” Lyman said. “When a whale is compromised, these crab-like animals overpopulate on it and you get carpets of these things.”
The first thing to do is call the NOAA hotline for distressed animals, or radio the Coast Guard. Then get photos of the whale’s fluke, but only from a safe distance.
Then monitor the whale until the response team gets to the location. Don’t cut any of the debris from the whale.
“It probably does help a little, but now by cutting the buoy off, it’s harder to find the animal and there’s still the line on the whale and that line might be a lethal wrap,” Lyman said.
It all boils down to doing what’s best for the animal and the safety of the humans responding, while collecting the gear for further research.
“We rely on the community for reporting and just hanging there with the animal,” Lyman said.
NOAA hotline for distressed animals: (888) 256-9840.
To report a net on beaches or in the water, call Surfrider: (808) 635-2593.