A humpback whale freed by divers from a tangle of crab trap lines near the Farallon Islands nudged its rescuers and flapped around in what marine experts said was a rare and remarkable encounter.
to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and that we had
helped it," James Moskito, one of the rescue divers, said Tuesday. "It
stopped about a foot away from me, pushed me around a little bit and had
Sunday's daring rescue was the first successful
attempt on the West Coast to free an entangled humpback, said Shelbi
Stoudt, stranding manager for the Marine Mammal Center in Marin County.
45- to 50-foot female humpback, estimated to weigh 50 tons, was on the
humpbacks' usual migratory route between the Northern California coast
and Baja California when it became entangled in the nylon ropes that
link crab pots.
It was spotted by a crab fisherman at 8:30 a.m.
Sunday in the open water east of the Farallones, about 18 miles off the
coast of San Francisco.
Mick Menigoz of Novato, who organizes
whale watching and shark diving expeditions on his boat the New
Superfish, got a call for help Sunday morning, alerted the Marine Mammal
Center and gathered a team of divers.
By 2:30 p.m., the rescuers
had reached the whale and evaluated the situation. Team members realized
the only way to save the endangered leviathan was to dive into the
water and cut the ropes.
It was a very risky maneuver, Stoudt said, because the mere flip of a humpback's massive tail can kill a man.
was the first diver in the water, and my heart sank when I saw all the
lines wrapped around it," said Moskito, a 40-year-old Pleasanton
resident who works with "Great White Adventures," a cage-diving outfit
that contracts with Menigoz. "I really didn't think we were going to be
able to save it."
Moskito said about 20 crab-pot ropes, which are
240 feet long with weights every 60 feet, were wrapped around the
animal. Rope was wrapped at least four times around the tail, the back
and the left front flipper, and there was a line in the whale's mouth.
crab pot lines were cinched so tight, Moskito said, that the rope was
digging into the animal's blubber and leaving visible cuts.
least 12 crab traps, weighing 90 pounds each, hung off the whale, the
divers said. The combined weight was pulling the whale downward, forcing
it to struggle mightily to keep its blow- hole out of the water.
and three other divers spent about an hour cutting the ropes with a
special curved knife. The whale floated passively in the water the whole
time, he said, giving off a strange kind of vibration.
was cutting the line going through the mouth, its eye was there winking
at me, watching me," Moskito said. "It was an epic moment of my life."
the whale realized it was free, it began swimming around in circles,
according to the rescuers. Moskito said it swam to each diver, nuzzled
him and then swam to the next one.
"It seemed kind of
affectionate, like a dog that's happy to see you," Moskito said. "I
never felt threatened. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience."
whales are known for their complex vocalizations that sound like
singing and for their acrobatic breaching, an apparently playful
activity in which they lift almost their entire bodies out of the water
and splash down.
Before 1900, an estimated 15,000 humpbacks lived
in the North Pacific, but the population was severely reduced by
commercial whaling. In the 20th century, their numbers dwindled to fewer
than 1,000. An international ban on commercial whaling was instituted
in 1964, but humpbacks are still endangered. Between 5,000 and 7,500
humpbacks are left in the world's oceans, and many of those survivors
migrate through the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
Whale experts say it's nice to think that the whale was thanking its rescuers, but nobody really knows what was on its mind.
hate to anthropomorphize too much, but the whale was doing little dives
and the guys were rubbing shoulders with it," Menigoz said. "I don't
know for sure what it was thinking, but it's something that I will
always remember. It was just too cool."
Humpback whales hold a
special place in the hearts of Bay Area residents ever since one that
came to be known as Humphrey journeyed up the Sacramento River in 1985.
The wayward creature swam into a slough in Rio Vista, attracting 10,000
people a day as whale experts tried desperately to turn it around.
Humphrey went back to sea after 25 days of near-pandemonium and
worldwide media attention.
In the fall of 1990, Humphrey turned up
again inside the bay in shallow water near the Bayshore Freeway,
finally beaching on mud flats near Double Rock, just off the Candlestick
parking lot. He remained stuck for 25 hours, until volunteers, helped
by a 41-foot Coast Guard boat, pulled him free and sent him back to the
ocean. He has not been seen since.
Humpbacks like Humphrey do seem to relate to people more than other whales, according to Stoudt.
do hear reports of friendly humpbacks, whales approaching boaters,
especially in Baja California," Stoudt said, "but, for the most part,
they don't like to be interacted with."