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    Latest Disentanglement - right whale, Yellowfin

     
         
     

     

     whale raising its badly damaged flukes in an attempt to dive, moments before the gear pulls free
    FFWCC 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

    telemetry chart

    Update to story below, 1/6/05: The right whale research team at the New England Aquarium has matched this whale to its catalog of previously identified North Atlantic right whales. Right whale, Yellowfin, is now confirmed to be #3314, the calf of #2114, born in the winter of 2003. The gender of this whale is unknown; however, analysis of biopsies collected at the scene will likely provide this information.

    Yellowfin was re-sighted most recently by the Georgia Wildlife Trust aerial survey team on January 2, 2005. The whale was seen off just offshore of Sapelo Island, Georgia, in the company of other right whales.

    Update to story below, 1/2/05: After intensive logistical planning this whale was disentangled on New Year's Eve. The successful disentanglement attempt would not have been possible without the incredible support of the US Coast Guard vessel, Yellowfin, and crew out of Station Charleston, South Carolina. Using the Yellowfin as a base of operations, a multi-agency team with staff from NOAA-Fisheries, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FFWCC), Georgia Department of Natural Resources (G-DNR), Wildlife Trust (WT) and PCCS, removed over 550-feet of rope from this 32-foot whale, including a critical wrap of rope around the upper jaw.

    Teams from the different agencies and organizations converged in southern North Carolina on 12/29/04, with the intention of leaving the port of Wilmington aboard University of North Carolina research vessels. Satellite telemetry though indicated that the animal, which had been moving consistently north over the previous days, had abruptly turned south, and would soon be out of effective range of this port. Teams headed south, overland, to Charleston, S.C., with an offer of help from the USCG. In the afternoon of 12/30/04, PCCS and FWCC headed out of Charleston Harbor aboard a rigid-hulled inflatable while the remainder of the team boarded the CG vessel Yellowfin.

    As the 87-foot Yellowfin made its way out of the harbor, the team aboard the small vessel found the whale with the aid of an aerial survey team from NOAA-Fisheries, WT and G-DNR. This team used the remainder of daylight to adjust the telemetry buoy, shorten the trailing lines, add more buoys to slow the whale and assess the whale’s behavior for disentanglement attempts the following day. As the Yellowfin came on scene at sunset, the team added a strobe light to the telemetry buoy to aid in nighttime tracking of the animal.

    Through the night the CG crew used the beacon to follow this animal as it headed steadily south. Well before dawn the strobe began to loose power making visual tracking difficult, even with the calm seas. VHF radio tracking was used to follow the animal until first light when gear was readied for the disentanglement attempt.

    The disentanglement action plan included two vessels: the larger rigid-hulled inflatable to help slow and control the animal, and a much smaller inflatable to make more nimble approaches to the head for attempts to cut the wrap of line. The goal of the operation was to either remove all of the entangling gear or to remove enough gear to facilitate the natural shedding of this gear. Since the flippers of the whale had not been seen during any of the previous sightings, it was impossible to assess if the entanglement was more or less complicated than it appeared. Documentation of the whale clearly showed that this animals’ health was severely impacted by the entanglement. Most notable was the almost complete loss of use of its left blowhole due to the cutting in of the rope.

     

    left side of head showing entangling lines - note the left blowhole is almost completely obscured by damaged tissue 
    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
     


    At the first approach to the animal, using the larger inflatable, the team shortened the trailing lines more and moved the small buoys up closer to the whale. The drag of these buoys kept the whale from taking long dives and hampered its maneuverability somewhat. Using the smaller inflatable, the team then added a small parachute drogue to the trailing lines. With this significant increase in drag, the behavior of the whale changed. Pulling against the weight, the whale thrashed at the surface, breached and changed direction rapidly. After the whale calmed a bit, the team added more drag in an effort to truly stop the animal for the more dangerous effort of approaching the head to cut the lines. Using the larger inflatable as extra drag to the trailing line, the vessel and crew were pulled by the whale. With more time spent at the surface, the smaller vessel made numerous approaches to the whale attempting to cut the entangling lines with a hook-shaped knife at the end of a long pole. Each time, with the head wraps almost within reach, the whale submerged, evading approaches. Pulling hard against the drag of the buoys, the drogue and the larger inflatable, the whale raised its flukes for a dive. In a moment the rope on the whale finally parted and went slack. Fearing that it had parted at an inopportune location, both boat teams waited for the whale to resurface. Breaking the surface for a breath the teams clearly saw that the head of the whale was clear of rope. Overhead, the WT aerial team confirmed that no line was visible on the whale. From 3:30pm the previous day to disentanglement at 11am, the team had followed this whale as it traveled 60 miles to the southwest. At last sighting the whale continued its course at high speed.

    While it is not yet possible to say with certainty that the whale is gear-free (though both flippers were never clearly seen, observers agreed that the disentanglement would not have likely progressed as it did if wraps of the flippers had been present) the gear recovered from the whale may shed more light on this entanglement/disentanglement and will be used in ongoing studies aimed at reducing the rate of entanglements. This case, and its associated documentation, may also prove particularly important in understanding how entanglements affect the health of whales.

     

     right side of head showing animal free of entangling lines - note the deep impressions left by removed rope 
    FFWCC 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


    PCCS would like to thank the dozens of people working within the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network who supported the constantly changing logistics of this operation. Without a doubt, none of this would have been possible without the support of the USCG. The as yet to be identified whale was nicknamed Yellowfin, in honor of the crew and vessel.

    (Notably, on 12/30/04, a shore-based right whale sighting from the North Carolina coast prompted the USCG to head out on the water for safety and assessment. Documentation showed that this was a mother/calf pair and that the mother was the well-known whale, Calvin, a thirteen-year old that was disentangled by PCCS in 2001. This was her first documented calf.)



    Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network members working off the coast of Georgia, on 12/21/04, outfitted an entangled right whale with a telemetry buoy. What is presumed to be the same whale was seen two weeks prior to this sighting off the coast of the Carolinas by fishermen. The as yet to be identified whale is carrying an extremely long length of synthetic line marked by a large orange buoy. Wrapped around the upper jaw, this entanglement is considered life threatening over the long-term. The telemetry buoy will be used to track the animal for disentanglement attempts.

     

    aerial view of this animal off the Georgia Coast - image courtesy Wildlife Trust/NOAA-Fisheries

    Initial reports of this whale came from commercial and recreational fishing vessels working off Diamond Shoals, NC, during an especially good weather window in early December. Some fishermen reported that the large orange buoy was usually visible even when the whale was on a long dive. On December 21, a whale matching this description was sighted by the aerial survey team of the Wildlife Trust/NOAA-Fisheries, just offshore of Southern Georgia. Network members from the state of Georgia, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and NOAA-Fisheries mounted a successful at sea attempt to tag the animal before sunset.

    Though all the details of the entanglement are not yet known, the animal has, at minimum, a single wrap of line around the upper jaw. This line continues outside either side of the mouth, extending at least 150’ behind the whale to a set of buoys. Between the whale and the buoys, the line appears to be weighted, heading down into the water column. The tail of this animal has extensive scarring, likely from struggling against this entanglement.The telemetry buoy was attached to this trailing line after Network members pulled their way forward from the existing buoys.

    Plans for disentanglement attempts are underway and will take into consideration the location of the whale, weather conditions and the availability of resources. At this point the whale is presumed to be a juvenile and, as such, is likely to wander widely at this time of the year. At the time of writing, the whale has steadily moved north from the site of tagging and it is not possible to predict with confidence where the whale will be or spend time in advance. Weather conditions are not yet conducive to on-water attempts at disentanglement. Updates will be posted here. 

    click here to read about previous entanglements

     
     


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