Scientists Prepare for Risky Rescue of Entangled Whale
June 18, 2001

News update (June 19, 2001): Scientists and marine life experts postponed an attempt to rescue the Atlantic right whale Tuesday. Unfavorable winds at the rescue site caused the effort to be called off little more than an hour before the rescue team was scheduled to put to sea.

The scientists were expected to decide later when to reschedule the rescue attempt. In the meantime, an airplane was sent to check on the status of the whale. A tag that sends a satellite signal is attached to the mammal.

Original Story:

Scientists on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, are preparing for a bold and potentially dangerous attempt on Tuesday to save the life of a 50-ton (100,000-pound) Atlantic right whale that became entangled in fishing line off the Massachusetts coast.

The line—a thick synthetic rope—is wrapped around the whale's jaw and enmeshed deeply in its body. It has caused an infection, which is spreading.

"If the line is not removed, this whale will eventually die," said Terri Rowles, a veterinarian from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) fisheries in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Right whales, which can measure more than 50 feet (15 meters) in length, are nearly extinct. Hunted nearly out of existence in the 19th century for their heavy layer of blubber, the whales are now often victims of collisions with massive tankers or entanglement in fishing gear.

Scientists estimate there are only 300 right whales left, making the animals one of the most endangered species on the planet.

There is particular concern about the whale off Cape Cod because it is a 20-year-old male, which means it is important for reproduction and keeping the species extant.

The scientists were unable to attempt the rescue over the weekend because of fog and residual bad weather from tropical storm Allison. They have been tracking the whale's position with a satellite tag they attached to one end of the line.

"Unprecedented" Rescue Attempt

NOAA scientists will attempt the rescue with the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. The center's scientists have been involved in the rescue of more than 50 whales over the last 20 years, but they say this one will be unprecedented.

They will try to cut the tangled line while the powerful whale is at sea, perhaps even a few feet under water and not restrained or in a confined area.

"Imagine a doctor trying to perform surgery with a scalpel attached to a fishing line, running alongside the patient attempting to make an incision," said David Mattila, head of the center's disentanglement team.

Continued on Next Page >>




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