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Whale Sanctuary, NOAA, Coast Guard respond to entangled subadult humpback whale off Maui

A NOAA member attempts to safely remove a large electrical cable from the mouth of a subadult humpback whale while off Maui March 11, 2017. The Coast Guard assisted responders from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Maui Ocean Safety, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission and NOAA's West Maui response team by providing an additional platform work from and enforcing a safety zone in the area. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Lester/Released)

Sunday, an entangled subadult humpback whale was cut free by a team of trained responders off Maui. The animal was entangled in large gauge electrical cable that was deeply embedded in the whale’s mouth. All gear except what could not be pulled from the whale’s mouth was successfully cut and removed.

The response was part of a two-day effort by responders from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, U.S. Coast Guard, Maui Ocean Safety, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, and the West Maui response team. The team of responders are authorized under NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response program (NOAA MMHSRP permit # 18786 and state PMAL-2016-212).

The whale was first reported Saturday, off the Pali lookout. A response was mounted from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary’s response vessel, Kohola, with assistance provided by a patrol boat from the U.S. Coast Guard Station Maui. Saturday’s assessment determined that the whale was entangled in gear exiting both sides of the mouth and heading straight down to the ocean floor. Initial efforts to cut the gear were unsuccessful.

Sunday, the animal was re-sighted in the same vicinity but headed south before letting the trailing gear settle on the ocean floor in about 60 feet of water off Kamaole Beach I. While underway, several tour operators monitored the animal, including Ocean Odyssey (Pacific Whale Foundation), Quicksilver, Redline Rafting, Blue Water Rafting, and Maui Diamond II.

Sunday’s assessments by the response team revealed that the gear was heavy-gauge (~ 5/8-inch) electrical cable. The team used cable cutters to cut both cables leading to the whale’s mouth. It is estimated that around 500 feet of cable was removed from the animal with little gear remaining. The cable had already embedded itself too deeply at the back of the whale’s mouth to pull out remaining gear. However, this represents a significant improvement and the animal illustrated this in its movements and behaviors afterwards. The source of the gear, which is a PVC-insulated electrical-type cable, is still unknown.

Although the animal is slightly emaciated and has gear embedded at the back of the mouth, its overall present condition is good. With the removal of the gear, the chances of its survival have been greatly improved.

Mariners are asked to keep a sharp lookout for this and other whales in distress, but not to approach closely or attempt to assist them. Only trained and well-equipped responders that are authorized under NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program are permitted to assist whales and other marine mammals.

If you sight any marine mammal in distress, maintain 100 yards distance and please call the NOAA 24-hour hotline at 1-888 256-9840. If unable to call, please radio the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH. 16 and they will relay the report.

It is illegal to approach a humpback whale closer than 100 yards by any means by sea and 1,000 feet by aircraft.

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