A young humpback whale that had been tangled up in fishing nets since October was finally freed Wednesday, after responders found the animal in New York Harbor and successfully cut away the rope, officials said.
The whale was first spotted near Cape Cod in October, with gillnet fishing gear, including ropes and small floats, wrapped around its upper jaw, according to a Thursday statement from Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies.
Teams quickly responded but were only partially successful in cutting away the ropes, and a “tight wrap of line” was still firmly wound around the whale’s jaw, eye, and blowhole, according to a statement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“If left alone, the animal had no chance,” NOAA Whale Disentanglement Coordinator David Morin said in the statement. “The whale would have died a slow and painful death. Even in response, the tight wrap left such a small area — about a foot or two wide — that we could cut.”
A NOAA team made two attempts to find and free the whale in November and December, but without luck, the statement said. In June, whale watchers and recreational boaters began to report sightings of the young whale, and by the Fourth of July it was consistently being seen off the coast of Sandy Hook, N.J.
Chances of success seemed slim, the NOAA statement said, but on Wednesday, a US Coast Guard helicopter finally spotted the whale resting between the inbound and outbound shipping lanes in New York Harbor near Sandy Hook, N.J., around 12:30 p.m.
The teams quickly established a security zone around the whale, and New Jersey environmental police deployed a small inflatable boat out to the animal, NOAA said. Crews carefully approached it with a hook-shaped knife at the end of a 30-foot-long pole and made two cuts to the remaining lines, leaving just a small length of rope and floats lodged in its mouth.
“No attempt was made to remove this line as this may have caused catastrophic injury to the whale,” the Center for Coastal Studies statement said. “Over time the whale should be able to shed this remaining gear.”
The whale didn’t seem to be distressed throughout the rescue, but it was somewhat evasive, a Center for Coastal Studies spokesperson said in an e-mail Saturday. Responders noticed it had some scarring at the corners of its mouth and blowhole.
NOAA crews and New York whale watchers will monitor the young humpback whale’s progress, but it was eating and acting normally after the rescue, NOAA spokeswoman Jennifer Goebel said in an e-mail to the Globe.
“Now the whale needs time,” Scott Landry, a member of the Center of Coastal Studies entanglement response team, said in a statement. “Time to shed the remaining gear as it feeds and time for its immune system to stave off infection. We have done all we can do for the whale. Any attempt to remove what is left could be tremendously harmful for the whale and many whales before it have dealt with gear caught in their baleen.”
Disentangling whales can be very dangerous for both whales and the people responding, the Center for Coastal Studies spokesperson said.
“Working on a small boat on the open water in close proximity to a very large, very powerful, unpredictable wild animal is inherently dangerous,” the spokesperson said. “One flick of a fluke or flipper can cause serious injury or even death. Rescue teams take every safety precaution imaginable but accidents can and do still happen.”
Last year, a whale rescuer in Nova Scotia was killed when he was struck by the tail of a right whale, moments after disentangling it, the spokesperson said.
Officials are reminding the public to always report sightings of entangled marine mammals and sea turtles to the
NOAA hot line at (866) 755-6622.