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The right stuff: Anatomy of a whale rescue

Saving a species, one whale at a time

By Marsha Walton

Fishing ropes cut into the young right whale named "Yellow Fin." Photos courtesy of Florida's Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Cool Science
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

A young right whale named "Yellow Fin" can swim free again after some high-seas drama. With just 300 right whales remaining on the planet, scientists say sending this one animal back to the wild was enormously important.

In a carefully choreographed and sometimes dangerous mission on New Year's Eve off South Carolina, scientists disentangled the 32-foot juvenile whale from a vast amount of fishing gear wrapped around its body.

"We believe we removed, if not the entire 500 feet of gear, certainly nearly all of it," said Charles "Stormy" Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies. That Provincetown, Massachusetts, research center is one of several scientific and government groups that took part in the mission.

Scientists named the whale Yellow Fin in honor of the Coast Guard cutter that served as the mother ship for the operation. The animal, whose sex is not known, proved to be a tough customer.

"Right whales are obstinate, very powerful, and they have a level of determination that is very different from the other species, and they are exceedingly dangerous to work with," Mayo said.

A fishing crew off the coast of North Carolina first spotted the distressed whale on December 6. They reported the animal's location to authorities and several conservation groups were on the lookout for it.

Wildlife Trust scientists flying over the area spotted the whale off Sapelo Island on December 21. A team from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources then dispatched a crew that successfully attached a telemetry device to the struggling mammal.

With the weather cooperating on New Year's Eve, and the whale's exact position known, scientists left Charleston, South Carolina, to begin the effort.

From two small boats, they first added buoys to the trailing fishing lines to slow the animal, then a small underwater parachute to slow it further.

The scientists were prepared to cut the lines that had gouged the whale's back and blowhole. But as Yellow Fin fought back, the tugging actually freed the ropes from its mouth. Biologists say if the lines had not been removed, the tightening rope would likely kill the young whale as it grew.

"This species is projected to be extinct in approximately 200 years if all things remain the same," said Barb Zoodsma, right whale recovery coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.

Along with the dramatic interventions like the freeing of Yellow Fin, NOAA Fisheries has other efforts to try to protect the animals that were hunted nearly to extinction by the early part of the 20th century. New England legend says that's how they got their name: Whalers advised they were the "right whale" to hunt.

"There are a number of things that can be done to make fishing gear more 'whale friendly'," said Zoodsma.

Things like eliminating the use of knots in lines can minimize threats to whales. Knots get stuck in the the whale's baleen, structures in the animals' upper jaws that filter food from water. When the ropes are braided or spliced, instead of knotted, the line usually pulls through without getting stuck.

Alerting commercial ships to right whale movements during the critical calving season can also help prevent collisions with ships, their other major threat.

"This area of the Southeast only became known as a calving ground in the 1980s, so there's a lot of education work to be done," said Patricia Naessig of Wildlife Trust.

The group does aerial surveys along the coast of the southeastern United States both to document the whale population and to serve as an early warning system to ships when whales are spotted.

Naessig works with NOAA, harbor pilots, and the shipping industry to alert them to whale movements. She says most ships now have Internet access, so communication is faster and more accurate. U.S. law prohibits vessels from approaching within 500 yards of a right whale.

Yellow Fin was spotted again January 2 by an aerial observation team from Wildlife Trust. Scientists say it appeared to be healthy and free of any gear.

All photos were taken under a NOAA Fisheries permit.

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