Last Friday, an adult 40-ton, 40-foot gray whale was rescued after swimming hundreds of miles along California’s coast while tangled in 120 feet of fishing line. The whale, nicknamed June, was tangled for over two weeks before he was freed from the fishing line by crab fisherman Captain Mark Anello and his two crew members, Pete Miller and Lynn McGowen.
A U.S. Coast Guard-affiliated marine disentanglement squad had attempted to come to June’s aid on April 17, when he was originally spotted off San Onofre shores. Though the team was able to collect some of the line that was wrapped around June’s pectoral fin and mouth, it became too dark for them to continue the cutting operation. June swam away that night and his exact whereabouts were unknown for the majority of last week.
“We had another false alarm, so we’re still in a holding pattern,” Dean Gomersall of Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMCC) in Laguna Beach told the San Clemente Patch on April 19. “We have helicopters out there looking. The Coast Guard had to divert for a bit, but they’ll be back on the search in a little while. Hopefully we’ll spot him.”
Now dragging two buoys that were attached to him by rescuers in San Onofre for tracking purposes, June swam all the way to Bodega Bay, about 67 miles north of San Francisco, where Anello and his crew happened upon him.
“They saw these buoys coming at them at about three or four knots. They stopped what they were doing and tracked the buoys for a minute, and saw it was tangled up with a whale,” explained Tony Anello, owner of the Spud Point Crab Company in Bodega Bay and Mark’s father.
Using 12-foot bamboo poles with hooks on the end, Anello and his crew cut June free of the line in approximately ninety minutes. “The whale thrashed a while,” Tony Anello reported. “They thought maybe it was going to damage the boat. The whale then calmed down…they reached out and untangled all the rope and gear caught around its mouth.” Afterwards, June “just followed the boat for awhile,” he added. “It was like the whale was saying thank you. Then it swam off. It was kind of cool.”
The PMCC, U.S. Coast Guard and other rescue organizations were relieved to hear the rescue was able to be completed. Melissa Sciacca, PMCC’s Director of Development, said they were “thrilled that the rescue that was started was able to be finished and have such a happy ending.”
But not everyone should attempt what Anello and his crew did, cautions Monica DeAngelis, a marine mammal biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She says that normally those not part of an official disentanglement network are advised to wait for trained rescuers to arrive if a whale in need is spotted. Tampering with a whale is not only dangerous, it also qualifies as a federal offense under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. “They’re actually quite fortunate that they did not get injured,” DeAngelis noted. Nonetheless, she is thankful Anello and his crew were able to come through for June.
“I’m not going to rain on their parade,” she said. “They did something amazing, and they probably did save the life of this animal.”
There have been a total of 78 reported whale entanglements in California from 2001 through 2010, according to NOAA data. And in March, two other tangled whales were rescued off the Orange County coast and freed. Gomersall says that it’s unusual for three whales to be caught in fishing line within such a short time-frame, though he does anticipate more fishing lines will be floating in the water due to incoming tsunami debris from Japan. “It’s very unusual,” Gomersall said. “It could not only be from the tsunami, but it also could be that non-U.S. fisheries aren’t being as cautious with their equipment as other countries.”