A group of local good Samaritans banded together this week to help a humpback whale that had become tangled in a barge anchor cable off Prince of Wales Island.
Oscar Hopps of Ketchikan-based Alaska Commercial Divers said the whale was discovered by Olson Marine crew members on Wednesday.
“Apparently, what had happened is the humpback whale had been feeding in the Nutkwa Inlet for some time – a lot of krill around there. He must have been bubble feeding when he came up and bit down on this inch-and-a-quarter cable that was going to a 7,000-pound anchor,” he said.
The whale must have spun, Hopps said, because the cable wrapped around the top half of the marine mammal’s head. The cable then twisted up on itself, forming almost a noose.
Hopps estimated the whale had been tangled for a few days before it was discovered. A rescue effort was organized quickly by Rick Olson, bringing together Olson Marine, Alaska Commercial Divers and Seawind Aviation crews.
They initially thought someone would have to dive down to remove the cable from the anchor. But, Hopps said they were able to use the cable to slowly coax the whale to the surface, next to the dive boat.
“We were able to get hold of the cable from underneath the whale and cut it,” he said. “Then from a small boat, we were able to slowly unwind the cable from itself and then using a system of pulleys, just kind of slowly pulled the cable off the whale.”
Hopps said the whale suffered minor wounds – the cable luckily missed its eyes. It seemed pretty tired after the ordeal, though, and stuck around for a while, resting on the surface.
Hopps said the whale seemed to understand that the crews were there to help.
“He was a little temperamental when we first started pulling him up, but as soon as he started feeling that slack of the cable, he sat there quietly and let us take care of him,” he said. “I’m really glad we were able to.”
Hopps says it was a meaningful experience for the rescue crews, too.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for sure,” he said.
Hopps says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials are aware of the rescue, and have asked for photographs of the whale so they can identify it.
According to the NOAA Fisheries website, entanglements are one of the leading causes of whale deaths. The agency has even produced a podcast giving tips on how to disentangle a whale – along with warnings about the potential danger of getting close to such a large animal.
This report has been edited to fix a spelling error.