Rescuers have freed a humpback whale that had been entangled in a crab pot line for more than two weeks.
Crews on Wednesday caught up with the whale off the coast of Santa Barbara, where it was twisted in the remnants of the line. It was first spotted in the Monterey Bay on April 27.
Soon after whale was reported, rescuers with the Whale Entanglement Team, a trained volunteer squad affiliated with the National Marine Fisheries Service, responded and attached a telemetry device to the lines so they could track the whale, said Peggy Stap, director of Marine Life Studies, a nonprofit whale advocacy and research organization based in Monterey.
The team was able to return the next day and remove the pot and 300 yards of line. But as swells climbed to eight to 10 feet, crews were forced to abandon efforts, she said.
Team members continued watching the whale and took advantage of relatively calm seas Wednesday, Stap said. The early morning operation took about an hour and a half. The whale was wounded but is expected to survive, Stap said.
It was the second recently entangled whale. The other, also a humpback, was spotted May 1. But rescuers were unable to find it, and it is believed to have drowned.
Pete Kalvass, a senior marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said whale entanglements in crab lines are rare, particularly in the Monterey Bay area near the end of crab season, when fewer pots are in the water.
If entanglements increase, Kalvass said, officials will investigate ways to attempt to minimize harm to the whales.
Justin Viezbicke, California stranding network coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the whale was a "subadult," but the agency wasn't able to determine if it was a male or female.
"The main thing is this whale has a chance now," Viezbicke said. "Before it didn't."
Four boats and 15 to 20 people participated in Wednesday's rescue. The team has a policy not to get in the water, so team members use poles and knives.
Pieter Folkens, head of the Whale Entanglement Team, said there have been four reported entanglements on the West Coast in the last two weeks. Two whale were freed, and two weren't re-sighted because the reporters didn't stay with the whales until rescuers could attach a telemetry unit.
Folkens said a poet wouldn't be able to describe the rush of emotions he felt when the humpack was freed Wednesday.
"It's a combination of feelings of success and accomplishment and being a part of something that makes a difference," he said.
He said the number of entanglements is growing, but only in relation to the population of humpback whales, which is exploding.
According to Folkens, the whale was making attempts to feed but had already lost weight because of the injury. The tissue around the crab pot line, he said, was also starting to die.
"The reason this rescue was successful was because we had people on the water who were willing to stay with the whale until the responders were able to get there," Folkens said.
Stap said Marine Life Studies is accepting donations to assist with future rescues. In particular, the team needs another telemetry device. Additional information is available at www.marinelifestudies.org.
If you spot a entangled or injured whale, call (877) SOS-WHALE (767-9425).
Contact Becky Bach at 408-920-5862. Follow her at Twitter.com/troutbach.