Rangers in Glacier Bay National Park respond not only to human visitors in trouble, but also to marine life that need help. A recent case of a humpback whale that became entangled in a polyester line demonstrates not only the quick response of park rangers, but also how satellite technology can play a role in saving whales.
The tangled whale was spotted in Glacier Bay by two park visitors late in the day on September 21. The humpback was heading across the bay and trailing a buoy about 150 behind it. After the park was notified, rangers aboard the Capelin arrived to monitor the whale while back on shore park mechanic Bruce McDonough prepared an inflatable boat for launch, the Sand Lance, for a possible disentanglement operation, while park biologists Chris Gabriele and Janet Neilson alerted the National Marine Fisheries Service's whale stranding network and gathered a disentanglement tool kit.
Arriving on the scene around 5 p.m., the biologists assessed both the whale's condition and determined wherther they could remove the line from the whale's tail. According to the park's report, "The whale was traveling rapidly out of Glacier Bay at a steady 6-7 knots, but the entanglement appeared to prevent the whale from raising its tail to dive. Gabriele and Neilson determined that the entanglement was potentially life threatening, and that disentanglement was feasible, but that diminishing daylight and the whale’s travel speed precluded a safe attempt that day."
While it wouldn't be safe for the biologists to try to follow the whale through the night and work on removing the line the following morning, they had the equipment necessary to keep tabs on the whale as it swam through the night.
For just such circumstances, the whale rescue kit includes a satellite telemetry buoy which can be attached to the fishing gear that trails behind the whale, so that the whale’s location can be tracked until factors such as weather, location, vessel support and personnel converge to create a safe opportunity to try to disentangle the whale. Ranger Wendy Bredow, who is also trained in whale disentanglement, transferred from the Capelin to the Sand Lance to help deploy the satellite buoy, which was accomplished at around 6 p.m. Rangers onboard the Capelin stood by as the support boat and Park dispatch staff stayed late to monitor the operation’s progress. As the whale continued to swim rapidly west, Park staff headed in for the night.
Satellite data gathered overnight indicated that the telemetry buoy was nearly stationary at a remote location in the Inian Islands, approximately 12 miles west of where the whale was last seen. When they heard about the entangled whale, Inian Island residents Jane Button and Greg Howe (Greg is the son of the late Bob Howe, former GLBA Superintendent) offered to skiff over to the buoy’s location. They confirmed that the buoy was no longer attached to a whale, and better yet, the rest of the fishing gear was there too!
They retrieved the satellite buoy and fishing gear (over 300 ft of polyester line) and reported that the whale was nowhere in sight. The owner of the gear, who was contacted by Kaili Jackson of NMFS using information on the labeled buoy, said he had set a recreational shrimp pot on the previous Saturday in Lower Lynn Canal and discovered it missing on Monday.
This whale was fairly lucky, having been entangled for no more than four days and swimming at least 64 miles, compared to several whales that have been disentangled in Hawaii after having migrated 2,500 miles or more trailing fishing gear from Alaska!
Because several entangled whales are reported in the North Pacific each year, the NMFS and National Marine Sanctuary Program have made a major effort to train whale entanglement response teams in several towns in Alaska, Hawaii and California, following on the successful North Atlantic disentanglement network that originated in the 1980s at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Several GLBA staff have trained as first-responders for whale entanglement, and GLBA maintains a cache of specialized disentanglement tools. These resources and the Park’s detailed Marine Mammal Stranding Protocol help ensure safe and efficient response efforts. Responding to this event was truly an inter-divisional Park effort with essential support from the NMFS.