The residents of Tenakee Springs, Alaska, heard a whale in need before they spotted it.
According to KTOO, around Thanksgiving, townspeople started to hear a "sad and mournful and awful sound" of a whale bellowing for assistance.
The calls were traced to a 40-ft. humpback whale entangled in tanner crab pot gear in the waters near Tenakee Springs. Whale entanglements are rare in the area, and most are resolved by the animal finding its own way out. It was clear to Tenakee Springs residents Steve Lewis, Wendy Stern, and Gordon Chew that this whale was a special case that would require a little more help.
The three residents are all volunteers trained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to respond to whale entanglements. After finding the whale and assessing the situation, the volunteers reached out to NOAA to get the go-ahead to assist the animal and were granted permission to intervene.
After getting the OK, Lewis, Stern, and Chew took a boat out to the whale and used a waterproof camera to get a better idea of how the whale was entangled.
"It had an anchor on the tail, lines going forward, a buoy in its mouth, another buoy at its tail. And it really could barely move," Stern told KTOO. "It was awful to see an animal all bound up like that."
The footage obtained through the waterproof camera was sent to NOAA, so NOAA experts and the volunteers could come up with a safe plan to free the whale.
Safety is key in these rescues since whale entanglements can quickly become dangerous for the animal and the humans trying to helping them. The volunteers consulted with NOAA during every step of their rescue and used their hours of training experience and special tools to carefully conduct the release.
By Thanksgiving morning, the volunteers were ready to cut the whale free. With help from several other boats, the volunteers were able to cut off the heavy crab pot weighing the whale down. The boats then followed the whale, who started to swim after losing the crab pot, and were able to cut off one of the buoys caught on the animal later in the day. With the crab pot and buoy gone, the whale was able to dive down and swim away from the boats on its own.
"Helping a big animal like that is a wonderful way to spend Thanksgiving,' Lewis said. "We were really happy to be able to spend our day doing something really good for the world or at least for that whale."
NOAA experts believe the whale, later identified as a 16-year-old humpback from Southeast Alaska, likely shook off the rest of the fishing gear.
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