Wanted: Local Responders For Entangled Whales

Sep 14, 2016

A humpback whale entangled in Captains Bay last month.
Credit Melissa Good/Alaska Sea Grant

Unalaska has seen a lot of whale activity in recent years, with many pods passing through the bay and even a few entanglements. 

That's why Melissa Good wants to train more local people to respond to distressed whales.

"The Marine Mammal Stranding Network has been arranging funding to do a training out here," said Good, an agent for the Alaska Sea Grant program and a level one entangled whale responder. "I think it's highly likely that we'll either have a training next summer or the summer after."

Right now, Good is the only person on the island who's trained to approach distressed whales — like the humpback that got stuck in Captains Bay last month.

After spotting the whale, Good used an inflatable boat to get close, take underwater footage, and assess the situation. She found the humpback had a fishing line hooked in its mouth.

"Besides being kind of lethargic and lazy, it would lift its head and tail out of the water at the same time, which is not a normal characteristic," she said. "It was humping its back a lot, probably because of the weight on its head, so it looked like it was doing yoga moves."

Good contacted officials at the nationwide Marine Mammal Stranding Network, and they gave her permission to try cutting the whale loose. But when she got back to the bay, she saw the humpback leap out of the water twice. It had pulled itself free after four days.

That's the best-case scenario, but Good said it doesn't always happen. Neither does getting permission to free a whale fast.

Last fall, when another humpback was trapped in Captains Bay, the network arranged for a full entanglement team to fly out to the island, but the responders were delayed by a storm.

When they finally arrived, Good said they couldn't even find the whale. Two days later, it floated up dead, having drowned in the squall.

In other parts of the country, that team of specialists might have responded quickly. But in Alaska, it's not always so easy.

"Most of our communities are not on the road system," said Good. "So if we're going to have a quick and effective response, it really has to be coming internally — from the communities."

Take the humpback from last fall, for example. If local responders had been on the scene, Good said the whale might have been freed before the storm and it might have survived.

"So hopefully we can get some individuals within Unalaska trained and ready to mobilize whenever we hear about an entangled whale," she said.

Until a local training session makes that possible, though, Good said anyone who sees a distressed whale should report it.

Contact the Unalaska Department of Public Safety at 581-1233 or the Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-877-925-7773.