Scientists Prepare for Risky Rescue of Entangled Whale

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The team will approach the whale in a 17-foot (5-meter) inflatable boat, only a third as long as the whale. They will first try to tire the whale by attaching the boat directly to the mammal and making it drag the craft along the water. (Ironically, in the 19th century that technique, called the "Nantucket Sleigh Ride," was used as a first step in killing whales.)

The rescue team will be at risk. One flick of the huge whale's powerful tail would be perilous.

The team might try to sedate the whale first. A drug would be administered by a rifle-fired dart. Marine veterinarians have been calculating the proper dose. But such sedation has never been tried before.

Custom-Made Tools

To cut the line, the rescue team has prepared custom-made tools, including V-shaped knives with one edge smooth and one razor sharp. The smooth edge would slip under the line along the whale's skin, allowing the sharp edge to cut the line free. The team would then remove it.

"We have not ever tried to make cuts of rope as deeply embedded," said Charles Mayo, a senior scientist at the coastal studies center. "Whales have generally not been in such serious condition," he added, "so we're working right at the edge."

If they are unsuccessful, the scientists say they will rig the free ends of the line with buoys that will cause enough drag to help the whale free the line from its body.

Because right whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Act, the U.S. federal government must give permission for the procedure, which could potentially threaten the whale. The scientists were expecting to receive the go-ahead on Monday.

The whale is in desperate condition. Mattila, who took part in one rescue attempt last week, said looking at the whale in that condition "just breaks your heart."

(c) 2001

National Geographic has sent a television crew to Massachusetts to report on the attempt to rescue the entangled whale. Watch continued television coverage of this event on National Geographic Today

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