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    Right whale found entangled off the coast of Georgia - 12/8/05

     
     

    Click here for last known location of whale.

     

    Entangled right whale raises its flukes within sight of the disentanglement team and US Coast Guard vessel.
    Georgia DNR image taken under NOAA-Fisheries permit 932-1489, under the authority of the U.S. Endangered Species
    and Marine Mammal Protection Acts - please request PCCS permission for use.

    Update, 12/14/05 (see original story below): Taking advantage of a rare weather window, a disentanglement attempt was mounted on Monday (12/12/05) off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Despite some inroads the team was unable to remove what is believed to be the most dangerous portions of the entanglement from this whale. The whereabouts of the animal are now unknown as the telemetry buoy that was attached to the entangling rope was necessarily removed. Future opportunistic sightings of this animal may shed light on the state of the whales’ health and entanglement status.

    Staff from PCCS and numerous private, state and federal agencies met at the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Atlantic Beach, N.C. on Sunday in anticipation of relatively good sea conditions forecasted for the following three days. The USCG had dedicated the buoy tender Elm as a platform for the disentanglement attempt as the telemetry buoy affixed to the whales’ entanglement indicated that the animal was continuing a northward track offshore of the Carolinas. The team was eager to attempt a disentanglement before the animal rounded Cape Hatteras, an area well-known for unfavorable sea conditions, and the USCG suggested departing that evening in an attempt to intercept the animal.

    By first light the Elm was within hearing range of the VHF tag affixed to the buoy on the whale and a NOAA aerial survey plane joined the search effort (the same flight crew had flown a survey the day before but could not locate the whale). Unfortunately sea conditions were less than favorable and signals from VHF tag were very sporadic – essentially silent most of the time. By late morning the shipboard and aerial crews sighted the animal but quickly lost the whale due to rough seas. The whale was not resighted until early afternoon as sea conditions calmed.

    A small inflatable boat and a USCG utility boat were quickly launched to begin disentanglement operations. Observers quickly noted that the telemetry buoy trailing behind the whale was seriously fouled by derelict fishing gear that the whale had encountered during its travels over the previous week. Effectively submerging the buoy, the debris had made satellite and VHF transmission poor. The team removed this gear and began to add buoys and a sea anchor to the original entanglement in an effort to slow the animal as it continued traveling quickly northward within the Gulf Stream.

    The animal was slowed, not stopped, by this additional drag. Using a long pole and hook-shaped knife the team aboard the inflatable made a series of approaches to the whale attempting to cut the tight wrap of rope on its back. Despite the hindrance of the buoys the whale had enough mobility to turn away from all of these approaches. At one point the whale raised its flukes high and dove. Within seconds the buoys resurfaced without the whale. Retrieving this gear the team found a frayed bitter end of rope where the entanglement had parted. The whale sped off to the north with very little rope trailing behind it and the wrap of line still encircling the body. There is some chance that with the reduction of drag (over 100m of rope and buoys had been removed over the three successive disentanglement attempts) the animal may be able to further shed the entanglement. But without a clear assessment of the entanglement any speculation will be difficult.

    This series of attempts would not have been possible without the dedicated work of the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network - especially that of the US Coast Guard. The dedication and ingenuity of the captain and crew of the cutter Elm were invaluable in this latest attempt. Staff from the Florida Wildlife Commission, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, NOAA Fisheries and Wildlife Trust also made incredible sacrifices for this operation. Future sightings of this animal will likely bring all of these institutions back into the field and any updates will be posted here.


    Posted 12/8/05:
     

    View of right side of whale as it surfaces. Note the red rope and wound across the back.
    PCCS image taken under NOAA-Fisheries permit 932-1489, under the authority of the U.S. Endangered Species and
    Marine Mammal Protection Acts - please request PCCS permission for use


    An entangled right whale was found off the Georgia coast last Sunday (12/3/05) by the Wildlife Trust aerial survey team. The animal was towing a long length of rope and buoys. Recently trained disentanglement responders from the Georgia Department of Natural (GDNR) resources mounted a successful tagging operation, placing a satellite/VHF buoy to the trailing rope. Using this telemetry system to track the whale, a disentanglement team from PCCS, NOAA Fisheries, the US Coast Guard, as well as Florida and Georgia state agencies, attempted, to remove the entanglement on 12/5/05. Despite some progress, the attempt was called off late in the afternoon due to fading light and poor sea conditions.

    The whale has not yet been identified by the New England Aquarium right whale research team but it appears to be a young animal. The exact nature of the entanglement is unclear but includes a very tight wrap of rope around the girth of the body, possibly anchored at one or both flippers. After tagging, the whale continued south, into the offshore water of Florida.

    With vessel support from the US Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) teams departed from two ports (Jacksonville and Ponce Inlet) in an attempt to intercept the whale on the morning of 12/05. An FWC aerial survey team found the whale and the boat-based team out of Ponce Inlet began the process of assessing the entanglement. Sea conditions were less than ideal but, with the arrival of the Jacksonville team, a disentanglement effort was mounted.

    Working from a small inflatable boat, the team added a series of large buoys and sea anchors to the rope trailing behind the whale in an effort to keep the whale at the surface and slow its forward movement. This addition of drag appeared to have some effect on the whale: it spent a bit more time at the surface, changed its direction of movement from south to north but, slowed very little. The team made numerous attempts to approach the forward area of the whale to cut the wrap of rope over the body and to assess whether or not the flippers were entangled.

    Despite the drag of the buoys the whale evaded all approaches and became increasingly wary. With sunset not far off the team decided to remove the buoys and readjust the telemetry buoy to a position closer to the whale (an effort that should reduce the chances of complicating the entanglement). All told, close to two hundred-feet of rope was removed from the whale but the remaining rope may pose the most serious risk to the whale.

    The whale has continued moving to the north and, as of 12/8/05, was offshore of South Carolina. PCCS and teams stationed along the East Coast are planning for further disentanglement attempts when weather permits. Considering how much right whales can move and the generally poor winter weather conditions, such efforts will be hard to predict. Future updates will be posted here.

    PCCS would like to thank all of the organizations involved in this logistically complicated attempt and especially the US Coast Guard for their vessel support.

     

    US Coast Guard vessel and disentanglement teams stand off as a buoy attached to the whale passes by.
    PCCS image taken under NOAA-Fisheries permit 932-1489, under the authority of the U.S. Endangered Species and
    Marine Mammal Protection Acts - please request PCCS permission for use



    click here for a list of previous entanglements

     
     


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