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Time for a Whale Disentanglement: Thanksgiving in Tenakee Springs

December 04, 2020

Tenakee volunteers also assist NOAA with Bigg’s killer whale necropsy.

Chew and Lewis Myron Tenakee Springs, AK Gordon Chew uses a GoPro on a pole to assess the humpback entanglement while Steve Lewis carefully negotiates the full circumference of the whale. Credit: Rachel Myron, NOAA permit #18786-04

In the wee hours of the morning on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, residents of Tenakee Springs, Alaska were awakened by the unmistakable cries of distress.

The sound, which some Tenakee residents described as “squealing,” resonated across the water to the small, remote community of about 130 people in Southeast Alaska. It was a call from an adult humpback whale that was hogtied in crab pot gear just 200-300 yards from shore. The whale was severely entangled and stationary, but was able to surface to breathe.

By 8:15 a.m., residents had notified the Alaska Regional Office of NOAA Fisheries in Juneau to report the entanglement. Agency marine mammal experts deemed the entanglement to be very serious—the humpback could not move to pursue food—but not immediately life-threatening. Before a disentanglement operation could be attempted, NOAA Fisheries Protected Resources staff would need additional information about the complexity of the entanglement. Fortunately, two Tenakee residents already had NOAA Level 3 training in large whale entanglement response. Could they get underwater images?

Perks of Preparedness   

Little did the humpback know it was stuck in just the right place to get the assistance it needed.  

Gordon Chew had been instrumental through the years in advocating for entanglement preparedness in Tenakee, storing and maintaining NOAA-provided supplies, and coordinating trainings by NOAA experts. Steve Lewis was an experienced whale researcher with many years working around the animals. Both are Level 3 trained large whale entanglement responders. Together, they had the preparedness, experience, and the right tools for getting the needed underwater images for assessing the entanglement—a long pole with a GoPro camera attached.

Working from a skiff, Chew focused on collecting video of the whale and the entangling pot gear and line. Lewis carefully steered the boat around the humpback to get images from all angles. Then they sent the photos and video to NOAA Fisheries’ Large Whale Entanglement Response team. The team oversees response efforts in Alaska under NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. 

Assessment and Action Plan

“The assessment and documentation mission was a success,” noted NOAA Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator Ed Lyman, from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary on Maui. Lyman advises and assists NOAA Fisheries with large whale entanglement response in Alaska. “The Level 3 responders obtained great polecam footage that helped our NOAA team come up with a low-risk action plan to potentially free the animal.”

underwater view of an entangled humpback whale
Trained Tenakee Springs large whale entanglement responders use a GoPro camera to get underwater images of the entangled humpback whale. Credit: Gordon Chew, NOAA permit #18786-04

The video showed that the animal was entangled in the buoy line and associated pickup line of crab pot gear. The lines were wrapped around the peduncle—the muscular area where the tail flukes connect to the body. The buoy line ran the length of the whale’s body up and into the whale’s mouth to create a hogtied scenario. 

The prescribed plan included actions to take and avoid, support roles, support vessels, documentation, communications, risk management, and overall safety. Twelve people in Tenakee Springs—four of whom were Level 1 responders—volunteered to assist in support roles according to their experience and as appropriate. Only the Level 3 trained responders would get close to the whale.

The plan was to sever the trailing line using a cutting grapple. They hoped that relaxing the tension on that line would allow the peduncle wraps to release. That would possibly allow the drag from the two buoys to pull the gear from the whale’s mouth. 

The NOAA team reviewed the underwater video in the afternoon. They advised the Tenakee crew to attempt to use specialized cutting equipment to cut the animal free at first light the next morning. This would enable them to prepare their tactics, including personnel roles and responsibilities, and their equipment, including sharpening the blades on the flying knives and grapple. An early morning start would also allow the team to take full advantage of the limited daylight hours. 

underwater view of an entangled humpback whale
Trained Tenakee Springs large whale entanglement responders use a GoPro camera to get underwater images of the entangled humpback whale. Credit: Gordon Chew, NOAA permit #18786-04

Chew and Lewis would check-in with the NOAA team at first light on Thanksgiving morning. They would provide the latest on the whale’s situation, assess the weather and sea conditions, and collaboratively discuss and prioritize disentanglement tactics.

The NOAA Fisheries team had the highest confidence in the Tenakee team. Lyman has traveled to Alaska often to conduct large whale entanglement training. He had personally trained Chew and Lewis, and many members of the Tenakee community in support roles. Alaska Regional Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator Sadie Wright, and Level 4 entanglement response experts Kate Savage with NOAA’s Alaska Regional Office and John Moran with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center had also worked with Chew and Lewis before.

Coincidentally, Wright and Savage had called upon Lewis just two weeks earlier to lead the necropsy of a transient Bigg’s killer whale found floating near Tenakee November 13.

A Bigg Necropsy

Steve Lewis and his wife Rachel Myron got a radio call on Friday, November 13 from a neighbor about a floating killer whale carcass in a nearby cove. They immediately contacted NOAA Fisheries to report the dead animal. 

A transient killer whale floating
A transient killer whale floats close to shore near Tenakee Springs, Alaska. Credit: Steve Lewis, NOAA Permit #18786-04

Agency marine mammal experts would not be able to fly to Tenakee Springs to conduct a necropsy due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. They could, however, send a cooler for tissue samples and any needed tools and materials by plane if the Tenakee couple could conduct the necropsy.

Lewis has lots of experience with marine mammals. During the summer months he does Steller sea lion research for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He has also worked extensively on whale photo identification, biopsies, and at least six disentanglement operations.

He believed that with assistance from their neighbors and friends Molly Kemp and Nick Olmsted—who are both biologists with necropsy experience as well—they could do it.  

Myron agreed to support the effort.

“I have necropsy training as well, though it is not my cup of tea,” she said. “I am happy to bag and label samples, do photographs, provide logistical support, and assist with communications. Whatever is needed!”

 NOAA’s Sadie Wright and Kate Savage, a marine mammal veterinarian with NOAA, met with the Tenakee team virtually to review protocols and equipment for the necropsy. 

killer whale necropsy
Volunteer marine mammal responders from Tenakee Springs take morphometric measurements on the killer whale. Left: Steve Lewis; middle: Arnie Strong. Right: Uriah Strong and his daughter, Sophie Strong. Credit: Rachel Myron, NOAA permit #18786-04

The NOAA supplies weren’t scheduled to arrive until Saturday afternoon. Lewis and members of the Arnie Strong family took advantage of the high tide to pull the carcass up higher on shore. They gathered data on the size and shape measurements of the killer whale.

Once the NOAA equipment arrived, the team went over their tools and protocols to be ready to begin the necropsy in the pre-dawn light Sunday morning. It was important to get as much done as early as possible since the biggest tide of the year was on Sunday, with a 20.6-foot tide just after noon.

Lewis and Kemp led the effort, with Olmsted taking photographs and sharpening knives. Myron and Sophie Strong paired up to bag and label parts and vials of fluid samples, and others provided logistical and hands on help.

It was a female killer whale, 6 meters long. The team found hair and whiskers in the stomach of the whale, indicating it was a transient Bigg’s killer whale.

“There was not much notable that would indicate cause of death,” said Lewis. “There was a bit of damage to the upper jaw, right side, and some odd cuts and swelling.” 

The team sent the biological samples back to Juneau by plane on Monday. Scientists will examine the tissues and photographs to determine a possible cause of death.

NOAA partner Jared Towers, who works with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Bay Cetology, used the photos shared by NOAA to identify the whale. It was T124A3, a 15-year old from the West Coast Transient Biggs population. She gave birth to her first calf last year—a male (T124A3A). She and her pod commonly occur from Southeast Alaska to northern Washington State, especially the Salish Sea. This is the third killer whale stranding in Southeast Alaska this year.

“I feel sad that she died,” added Myron. “But I am grateful we could do a little bit to contribute to science with our effort.”

The whale remains were left for nature to take its course. NOAA Fisheries wants to remind the public that collection of parts from a carcass with soft tissues attached is prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act unless NOAA specifically authorizes their use for educational purposes.

Giving Thanks for Teamwork

Thanksgiving Day dawned in Tenakee Springs with a flurry of activity.

Following an 8 a.m. call with the NOAA marine mammal team, Lewis and Chew gathered their gear and launched their Thanksgiving Day disentanglement effort. Volunteers in three other boats and on shore provided support to the duo, including constant communication with NOAA entanglement specialists. Concerned town residents watched from houses or on shore. 

It was a long day. The first tactic went well. Lewis and Chew were able to make the strategic cut to free the whale from the anchoring 350-400 pound crab pot, allowing the whale to move. It swam easterly towards the mouth of the inlet, thrashing in an attempt to shed the remaining line and buoys.

Humpback whale flipper
A humpback whale thrashes in an attempt to shed the line and gear in which it is entangled. Credit: Steve Lewis, NOAA permit #18786-04

The gear shifted, but wouldn’t drop off the humpback. That’s when Chew and Lewis, under direction from NOAA, attempted another cut.

“The knife slid up the line on the yellow buoy—so it cut very near the knot,” said Lewis. “The whale instantly dove out of sight and was not seen again. Seas were near a three-foot chop near the mouth of the inlet. We have no idea if the whale went north or south in Chatham Strait. It was still trailing the orange barrel buoy from near the mouth.”

The response from NOAA Fisheries was positive.

“We are very optimistic that the whale will be able to self-release from the remaining gear,” said Large Whale Entanglement Coordinator for the Alaska Region Sadie Wright. “With the anchoring pot and most of the line removed by the responders in this case, we think it is very likely that any remaining gear is no longer life threatening.”

“This is an example of exemplary training, cooperation, and coordination coming together during a stressful event that required a relatively quick but thoughtful response,” said Kate Savage. “Given the conditions, everything moved efficiently and smoothly—I doubt it could have been better.”

“I’d like to extend my thanks to the entire team—thanks for your professionalism and teamwork, and for sacrificing a good portion of your Thanksgiving holiday,” added Jon Kurland, director of the Alaska Region’s Protected Resources Division. “Great effort!”

And in Tenakee Springs, relief.

“Thank goodness, there was a small thing we could do here that might make a difference in the long run for that whale,” said Rachel Myron, who provided support from the RainBird along with Wendy Stern at the helm.

NOAA worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to issue a broadcast to mariners asking people to keep an eye out for a reddish-orange buoy. If found, it would indicate the whale successfully shed the gear.  

humpback whale at the surface
The entangled humpback whale surfaces to breathe. Credit: Steve Lewis, NOAA permit #18786-04