LAGUNA BEACH – Dave Anderson of Captain Dave's Dolphin &Whale Safari (brother of our very own Moderator TytoLvr) first responded to the 1 ½-2-year-old whale Friday evening near Dana Point Harbor he said after hearing reports from whale watching boats. After checking with officials, Anderson attached a buoy for visibility and tracking. Anderson's wife Gisele contacted a friend, Peter Bartholomew, to watch the whale overnight from his boat.
Volunteers and staff from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, including specialists trained by the National Marine Fisheries Services, caught up with the 30-foot whale, nicknamed Bart for its overnight guardian, on Saturday morning a few hundred yards off of Emerald Bay.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, trained and licensed rescuers may only approach an animal if its life is in danger. The whale clearly met that threshold, said Dana Friedman, who led the whale disentanglement team.
"It was a huge amount of netting," he said. "It was frightening."
About 50-100 feet of gill net, curtain-like netting used by commercial fishermen, wrapped around the whale's flukes. As the crew reeled in the net and rope, they also untangled a dead sea lion, three sharks, spider crabs, fish and rays. The whale had likely dragged the netting along the sea floor during its migration up to Alaska from Mexico, Friedman said.
"This whale was doing everything it could just to breathe," he said. "But there was no way to feed itself."
For seven hours, the team of three trained personnel and four support volunteers used various strategies and equipment to free the animal, including grappling hooks, a flying knife and buoys. With nighttime approaching and a storm coming, team members knew they were running out of options, Friedman said. Suddenly, one of the control lines snapped, and the whale dove underwater. When it resurfaced more than a minute and 100 yards away, it was free.
"A lot of us are still speechless," Friedman said.
After the rescue, the whale lingered for a time near the team – something completely unexpected after hours of resisting rescue efforts.
Though it's impossible to know exactly the whale's medical condition, Friedman said nothing appeared to be immediately amiss.
"This whale has a great chance of healing, regaining weight and continuing back to Alaska," he said.