KOLOA — A search continues for an entangled humpback whale last seen near Koloa Landing on Kauai’s south side at 9 a.m. Monday by a kayaker about a mile off-shore.
But, it’s vanished since then and experts are asking for help in relocating the 40-foot, adult endangered whale.
The request specifically goes to those on the water — fishermen, tour boats and the like — because spotting the entangled whale from shore is highly unlikely.
It was first spotted on Sunday morning about 300 yards off the coast near Koloa Landing by Julie Gardner, a marine naturalist with Kauai Sea Rider Adventures, during a snorkel tour. Also on board the tour were captain Nick Aasand and marine naturalist Elijah Aasand.
“A morning snorkel tour always includes whale watching when the whales are here and we saw it, so we went over to check it out,” Gardner said. “When it was breathing, I noticed there was a line around it.”
Immediately Gardner reported the entangled whale to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s entanglement response program.
While they observed the whale and waited for instructions, a 10- to 12-foot tiger shark surfaced next to the tour boat.
It was one of two tiger sharks reportedly following the whale, but Gardner said she only saw one.
“When tiger sharks are nearby, they’re waiting,” she said.
The Kauai Sea Rider boat kept a distance of about 100 yards from the animal, as is the federal rule, until they got the go-ahead from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to get closer.
“We got in-water video with GoPros to determine the extent of the entanglement,” Gardner said. “It’s breathing wasn’t labored and it seemed like it wasn’t super distressed.”
The entanglement was made up of a moderate to heavy gauge yellow polypropylene line through the mouth, over the back, aft the animal’s blowhole, and knotted; it was also wrapped under the mid-body and back over the tailstock region, according to a Sunday alert from Ed Lyman, primary entanglement responder.
Also around the whale was a light-colored, also moderate to heavy gauge sinking line, integrated with the poly near the tailstock region, the alert said.
The yellow poly trailed about 30 feet behind the whale and the sinking line trailed about 80 feet behind.
Gardner confirmed seeing the line that was wrapped around and trailing behind the whale, but she said it was the whale’s light color that caught her attention.
“The coloration and pigmentation of the skin was different,” Gardner said. “That’s likely whale lice, a sick whale will sometimes collect more bacteria and lice, and when I looked closer I was able to see the line.”
The animal was emaciated, rough-skinned and in poor condition, according to Lyman’s alert.
After it was reported on Sunday, an entanglement response team made up of trained members from the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Coast Guard, and Lyman used a Kauai Sea Rider vessel and a US Coast Guard, 45-foot response boat to track the whale.
But the whale was lost because of a lack of standby support on Sunday.
“I still have hope based on the nature of the entanglement,” Gardner said. “We thought we would have a chance to cut it free if we were able to relocate it.”
The day the whale was discovered, Kauai Sea Rider had three tours scheduled and each of the boats took a turn looking for the entangled whale.
Monday, Captain Tara Leota went out on her own in between morning and evening charters to search for a few hours with NOAA as well.
“Conditions yesterday were the most optimal for locating it,” Gardner said. “It was flat with no cloud cover and we did multiple search patterns.”
It’s extremely dangerous for untrained people to try and disentangle a whale themselves, experts emphasize and the best way people can help is by reporting any sightings to the NOAA 24/7 response hotline: 1-888-256-9840.
Another way to report an entangled whale is to radio the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH. 16 and they will relay the report.