The team stands at the ready, each member with a specific role: grappling hook tosser, line and buoy handler, and experienced helmsperson. The grappler takes their first shot—and misses the target line. They pull the grapple back, with the line handler taking and giving slack as necessary. The grapple flies through the air once more, and this time it snags the line. In their excitement, the team members drop their gear and cheer.
“No, don’t drop the rope!” shouts Chad Yoshinaga, NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands safety program manager. “That’s exactly what you don’t want to do.”
On this day in October, Yoshinaga is co-leading an on-land large whale disentanglement training for NOAA staff in Honolulu. A line of rope stands in for the fishing gear that would otherwise be tangling around and trailing a humpback whale. If this was a real-world event, the dropped grappling hook rope could have dragged someone off the boat as the whale pulled away.
When disentangling a large whale, a simple mistake is all it takes for a potentially fatal accident to occur—and NOAA is taking no chances. From now through April, thousands of kolohā (humpback whales) will be using Hawaiian waters to mate, give birth, and raise their young. If one of these whales is entangled in fishing gear, NOAA and partners will be ready to try to free the whale—safely—thanks to comprehensive training.
“Large whale disentanglement is a high-risk, low-occurrence activity,” Yoshinaga said. “We have to train each year so that when we do respond to an entanglement, we’re familiar with the gear and processes and have the muscle memory to do the work.”
A Team Effort
The community-based Hawaiian Islands Large Whale Entanglement Response Network is responsible for whale disentanglement efforts in Hawaiʻi. Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary leads the network in partnership with NOAA Fisheries. The effort is part of a larger NOAA marine mammal health program.
The network relies on the help of many partners, including:
- State of Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources
- NOAA Office of Law Enforcement
- U.S. Coast Guard
- Marine mammal researchers
- Fishermen and other members of the on-water community
Like any emergency response effort, whale entanglement response requires a number of roles. These partners fill the various roles, and are organized into different levels, depending on their training and experience. For example, first responders are considered Level 1. They are the first people on the scene, focusing on documenting the situation and helping other responders understand the entanglement before they arrive.
“The on-water community has and continues to perform this valuable role that is the foundation of our effort,” said Ed Lyman, Regional Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator. Members of the public can become first responders by completing an online training. This course teaches about whale identification and anatomy. It also instructs how to properly, safely, and legally assess, document (including with photos and videos), and report whale entanglements. They then share this information with highly trained and experienced disentanglement experts authorized to respond.
More advanced levels of responders, including NOAA staff and U.S. Coast Guard service members, go through years of training.
“The Large Whale Entanglement Response Program is standardized across the United States,” said Diana Kramer, NOAA Pacific Islands regional stranding coordinator. “There are some variations in techniques depending on the species and the behavior of the whales. But the underlying process, format of the training, response authorizations, the key concepts, and, most importantly, the safety and the gear are the same across the nation.”
In the Pacific Islands region, NOAA holds training on Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi Island, Maui, and Kauaʻi.
"Freeing a 40-ton, free-swimming whale, which likely does not realize you are there to help it, poses risks to whales and responders alike,” Lyman said. “Getting the appropriate experience, conducting training, and having the right tools can reduce those risks. In doing so, we may not only save some whales, but also gain valuable information towards reducing the risk associated with large whale entanglements."
It all begins with classroom instruction. This includes an introduction to the network and the distinct roles, responsibilities, and authorization levels of responders. Case studies illustrate the various ways in which whales may be entangled and what can occur during entanglement efforts.
Next comes on-land training, during which participants learn how to use whale disentanglement tools. Working in small teams used in actual entanglement efforts, the trainees practice tossing grappling hooks and snagging a taut rope with hooks attached to long poles. They also learn how to set up and use satellite receivers that track entangled whales over several days, weeks, or months (and over large geographic areas). They also learn to use important communication and monitoring technology.
“We have specialized tools and very specific procedures,” Yoshinaga said. “Our processes and tools are constantly evolving as technology evolves and in response to the gear and debris we’re seeing on the whales.”
There are no companies that make equipment for large whale entanglement response. NOAA modifies existing tools and purchases custom-made tools to fit disentanglement needs. “Because of that, there’s a lot of innovation that goes on in the program,” Kramer said. Trainees are also encouraged to suggest novel techniques to improve on existing procedures. NOAA puts all new tools and techniques through rigorous vetting before sharing them with entanglement response programs across the nation. The safety of the disentanglement crew always comes first.
During the final part of the training, participants apply their knowledge and skills to a moving target—a buoy being dragged behind a small boat. Trainees must be able to catch the buoy’s rope with specialized tools and assist in supportive roles from both NOAA and U.S. Coast Guard boats.
“Our station crews are skilled in operating boats, but may not be familiar with whale behavior, operating around whales, and the latest entanglement response technology,” said Maile Norman, living marine resources specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard District Fourteen. “The annual training spearheaded by the Hawaiian Islands Large Whale Entanglement Response Network is absolutely critical to preparing our crews for the inherent risks associated with entanglement response so that it can be done safely.”
How You Can Help
Approaching a large, entangled whale is extremely dangerous for both people and the animals. The whales are unpredictable, and they’re also protected by law. “Adaptability is key here, as is patience,” Yoshinaga said, explaining that disentanglement efforts can take days, if not weeks. Successful entanglement responses would not be possible without all of the partners in the network. This includes on-water members of the public, who should never attempt to approach or free an entangled whale.
“The most important thing that people can do if they're out on the water and they see an entangled large whale—or any entangled marine mammal—is report it,” Kramer said. Those who have taken the online first responder training will know what to do. Call (888) 256-9840, or report to the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF CH-16, and provide as much information as you can to the operator, including:
- Date and time you observed the whale
- Type of gear (netting, rope, etc.) on the animal, including the color of the lines and buoys and any other identifying features
- Condition of the animal, such as the color and texture of its skin and whether it looks emaciated
- Relative size of the whale
- Location of the animal—coordinates are ideal but a general area and distance from shore are also very helpful
- Direction and speed the animal is moving
- Behavior of the animal
Photos and videos from different angles—taken from a safe, legal distance of 100 yards or more—help responders determine if the entanglement is life threatening or not. “Sometimes the entanglements can actually come off the whale on their own,” Kramer explained. “We don't want to put stress on the whale and risk the safety of responders if the entanglement can potentially come off without our help.”
If the Network responds, stay with the entangled whale (again from a safe, legal distance) as long as possible. This will make it easier for NOAA and partners to locate the whale. “If you do have to leave and there's nobody else on the scene, let us know again the whale’s location and its direction and speed,” Yoshinaga said.
With your help, this whale season will be as safe and successful as possible—for both the whales and everyone who loves them.