Rescuers Fail to Free Entangled Whale off U.S. Coast

Simone Swink
National Geographic Today
June 27, 2001
A team of marine scientists ventured into the Atlantic waters off Cape
Cod, Massachusetts, on Tuesday but failed in their efforts to rescue a
right whale that has been entangled in a rope for more than two

The whale appeared to be ill from wounds that became
infected as the rope dug into its skin. Many people are concerned that
if the whale isn't freed, it could die.

The scientists were not successful in their two attempts to sedate the 50-foot (15-meter), 50-ton (50,800-kilogram) whale with tranquilizers like those used in treating rhinos or elephants so that members of the rescue team could remove the rope. The rope was loosened somewhat, but is still embedded in the whale's upper jaw.

The operation was halted for the time being and it was not clear whether the rescue effort would resume.

"For the short term, they're done," Teri Frady, a spokesperson for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told the Associated Press early Wednesday morning. "The thinking is the same group will look at the data they got today, and we will hopefully be able to improve on it for next time."

The scientists from the Center for Coastal Studies, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the New England Aquarium have been working for the past two weeks to devise a strategy to rescue the animal, known as Right Whale No. 1102. Earlier rescue plans were thwarted by bad weather and rough seas.

Trapped But "Tenacious"

The whale, an adult male, was first discovered on June 8 when an aerial survey team from the National Marine Fisheries Service flew over Cultivator's Shoal, nearly 100 miles from Cape Cod.

The survey team said the entangled whale stood out among a group of right whales feeding in the area because its black body had light-colored spots caused by parasites on the skin and a light green plastic rope, apparently a fishing line, was streaming from its mouth.

Senior scientist Stormy Mayo of the Center for Coastal Studies has viewed the whale up close. "It appears at some point while the whale was feeding, it ran into this rope…at some point this plastic rope was put under tremendous strain and cut deeply into the snout and is now embedded."

The greatest danger to the whale at this time is not drowning, he noted, but death from a massive infection.

But Mayo is cautiously optimistic. 1102 is a tough whale, it's tenacious, he said. Mayo and the other scientists hope the whale will show a hardiness characteristic of the moniker bestowed on it by the marine science team: Churchill.

Hunted to Near-Extinction

Northern right whales are among the most endangered animals in the world. Only about 300 whales of this species are left.

According to a recent Congressional report on the status of the right whale, at least 10,000 and perhaps as many as 50,000 whales once lived in the northern Atlantic Ocean. They were hunted aggressively by whalers in the 19th century for their oil and bones, and got their common name from being known as the right whale to hunt.

After the total population was devastated as a result of whaling, the right whale was the first whale species to be given international protection, beginning in the 1930s.

The whales were always easy targets for whalers because they are slow swimmers who tend to feed near the surface. Now, the greatest danger they face is entanglement in fishing gear, such as fish weirs, deep sea lobster lines, gill nets, and ropes.

Collisions with vessels also reduce the number of right whales, some of whom feed near the surface in heavily traveled shipping lanes.

Last week, a female right whale calf was found belly up in the waters off Long Island, the victim of a boat propeller that had sliced fatally into her back.

Scientists say the limited reproduction of right whales—only 25 calves were born this year—means the loss of any individual member, especially a male of reproductive age, could affect recovery of the entire species.

Their dedication to freeing the whale seems to have given the scientists involved a strong sense of purpose. Said Mayo: "We are dealing with the last dregs of a population that lived along these shores happily by tens of thousands, [but were] decimated by my ancestors.

"We are down to the last act," he added, but "we can truly have an influence on that."

Watch continued television coverage of this event on National Geographic Today, only on the National Geographic Channel, 7 p.m. ET/PT in the United States. Click here to request it.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.