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  • Writer's pictureThe Whalenerd's Podcast

An entanglement like no other

A humpback whale calf swimming at the surface with a green float and orange poly ball dragging behind it under tension.

This is my most interesting entanglement encounter of my career. We covered this story and the current status of rope less gear in Episode 87 of the podcast.

August 8th 2021, Gloucester Massachusetts

As we left the dock that morning, sea conditions were beautiful. Flat calm with a little haze. I was finishing filling out the daily logbook in the helm with the captain when a call came in on the radio, some fishermen were calling in to the coast guard reporting an entangled whale. They gave a brief description and general location. Two whales, one with an orange poly ball, thrashing around about a mile off dry salvages.

Forget the coffee I just drank; nothing gives you more energy and drains you at the same time than a report like that.

I scribbled down the notes from the report in a small notebook with a marker, somehow the pen I had just used in the logbook wasn’t in my reach anymore. The captain and I looked at each other and knew we had to go over there. It was on our route to where we had been watching whales all week anyway. After gathering my thoughts for a moment, I asked the captain if we should call Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) with just a preliminary report, sea conditions were so calm, the earlier they could prepare to their Marine Animal Entanglement Response Team to mobilize, the better. The Coast Guard also delivers a report to CCS, but it goes through quite a few steps with the regional entanglement hotline managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) before it gets to them, it could be over an hour before they have the information. So, I called their direct entanglement hotline for CCS as we were exiting the harbor and gave them a heads up about the tentative report and that we would confirm the situation with exact coordinates once we got there.

Then I headed to the ledge in front of the wheelhouse to break the news to Jamie, the naturalist and educator on board, before doing my first engine room check of the day. I asked her to take another big swig of coffee before reading the notes I had written. Her shoulders slumped and her face had a look of concern. I told her what I had heard on the radio and that CCS was aware. She went into the helm, and I climbed down to the main deck to head for the engine room.

After I returned to the helm to give my engine room report, everyone was in search mode. We had several on board interns preparing to document the event with clipboard for notes and photos, but we had to find the whale first. We were in contact with the other whale watch boats leaving from our harbor and neighboring ports around the same time. Captain Johnny gave them the few details we had and told them we intend to spend time searching for the whale and standby for as long as we can. Our bosses could hear us making that commitment on the radio from our home landing and put up a little protest about it. It is peak season and we do have a schedule to keep. Unfortunately for them, the crew on board that day couldn’t have cared less about the schedule, not until we found the whale and passed it off safely to the care of CCS.

The seas were as calm as you could ever hope for when looking for a whale in distress. I noticed some splashing through my binoculars. As I focused on the disturbance, I saw what looked like an orange poly ball near it. It was a humpback whale, thrashing around with the gear trailing it. This whale wasn’t alone. As we got closer the tension and anticipation on the bridge was at an all-time high. The humpback whales in New England are very well known, people are literally on a first name basis with them. So when one is in distress, you always want to know “who” it is. It was just after 9am, it took us less than 45 minutes to find them.

Once we were a few hundred yards away, we quickly realized who the whales were. Jabiru and calf. This calf was new this season, born in the Caribbean sometime in the winter, making it somewhere between 6-8 months old. Unfortunately, the calf is easily recognized by a huge scar on its back from a previous entanglement and smaller scars from tools used by the disentanglement team. To make matters worse, the calf was the one entangled. Again.

A humpback whales calf swimming at the surface with almost the entire dorsal side visible. A scar from a previous entanglement in fishing gear is marked with a red circle.
Jabiru's 2021 calf

The doral fin, peduncle, and fluke of a humpback whales calf. A white scar from an entanglement in fishing gear is marked with a red circle.
Previous entanglement scars on Jabiru's 2021 calf

Two humpback whales swimming at the surface side by side. The mom and calf are marked with red arrows and labels.
Jabiru (mom) and calf

Two humpback whales swimming side by side. The calf is in the foreground with its whole dorsal side visible at the surface.
Jabiru (top) and her 2021 calf (bottom)

I called CCS again with an update on the situation while Jamie and the interns took data, photos and videos. Jabiru was mostly on the left side of the calf and seemed to be herding it in circles. The calf was beating its tail up and down very quickly as it moved along the surface. It was not immediately clear where the gear was attached to the whale, but two buoys were visible trailing behind the whale, a large orange inflated float and a smaller green buoy with a stick on top, but no flag. We were also not sure how much gear was underneath the whale weighing it down. Occasionally the calf would change direction quickly enough that slack would be created in the line – could the mom have been trying to get the calf to do this to escape? Could she see the line while swimming closely to the calf?

You can view a video of them swimming together here.

After making an initial assessment and updating CCS with the details, we moved off for a while to reduce our potential impact on the whales while they were so stressed. Conditions were so calm that we could keep tabs on the whales from over a mile away, and we had notified several other whale watching vessels in the area of the situation so they could help us keep watch. Not only is an entanglement event traumatic for the whale, it can also be traumatic for the people who witness it. If it were just the crew on board, we would’ve stood by from a safe distance away, even if it took all day, but we needed to give our passengers a break, and since we had help, we moved off to look at other wildlife in the area.

We were treated to some lovely sightings of Atlantic whitesided dolphins and more humpback whales. While we were watching the pod of dolphins, some recreational fisherman in a private boat were fishing nearby. At one point they were in the middle of the dolphin group, and they intentionally cast their lures out into the pod a few times. We got closer to them in our boat to apply some peer pressure, and they sped off.

Two gray and white dolphins surfacing side by side with the face of a third dolphins breaking the surface of the water on the lower right of the frame.
Atlantic whitesided dolphins

The two adult whales we spent the most time with were Sword and Valley. They both were surface active, displaying many breaches, head slaps and pectoral fin slaps. This seemed to rejuvenate our passengers, and the crew. Valley is a well-known and very productive female in this population. She was also unfortunately entangled in fishing gear earlier in 2021. She became so weighed down in lobster pots that she was anchored in place by the time CCS was able to successfully cut her free. The entire saga of the disentanglement event for Valley is documented on their social media feeds. At this point in the season, she looked much better, her skin was clean and normal in coloration, and she looked like she was at a healthy weight. Valley also bears signs of previous injuries from either fishery interactions or vessels. Her dorsal fin is all but missing, just a small hump on her back instead. She also has some tears in her flukes on the trailing edge and scarring where the peduncle and fluke meet. Classic signs of entanglement from the past. Sword also bear scars from injuries likely as a result of fisheries interactions. He is a suspected male in our population. On his left “armpit” (where the pectoral fin meets the body) he has inflamed scar tissue and his fluke is also missing a half circle chunk out of the trailing edge. Life is tough in the ocean for these whales, and yet they persist, survive, and reproduce.

A humpback whale laying on its right side with its left pectoral flipper and the corner of its left fluke in the air.
Humpback whale Sword, pec slapping

The flukes of a humpback whale named Valley. Scars from previous injuries are marked with red circles.
Humpback whale Valley, showing her flukes

We headed back to Jabiru and calf to relieve the other boat that had been keeping watch. The pair had hardly moved, less than a mile from the original coordinates that we found them at. The calf was still swimming in circles with mom right by their side. Not long after we settled back in, the calf swam a close pass by the boat and Jamie got a photo of the gear and where it was attached to the whale. It appeared to be wrapped around the left pectoral flipper. The line would get some slack in it off and on and unfortunately that was allowing the lines to rub across the whale’s back and tail. At some point the calf appeared more tangled as it flexed and kicked with the line over its flukes. We gave CCS an update with photos and texts as we continued to document the calf’s worsening injuries. It was about this time that we also learned more about the gear on the whale. We had sent the images to our boss on shore who knows the fishing community and was able to find out who’s gear it is. The buoys were markers for lobster gear, that is set in long trawls on the sea floor, up to 20 pots on each run.This little whale was potentially attempting to carry over a thousand pounds of gear and stay at the surface to breathe.

The mid section of a humpback whale at the surface, the white pectoral flipper can be seen through the water. A faint rope is visible draped around the flipper and marked with red circles.
The line is barely visible around the left pectoral flipper

The mid section of a humpback whale at the surface, the white pectoral flipper can be seen through the water. A faint rope is visible draped around the flipper and marked with red circles.
The line is barely visible around the left pectoral flipper

A humpback whale flexing at the surface to show its rostrum, dorsal fin, and fluke out of the water at the same time.
Jabiru's 2021 calf thrashing at the surface

A green float and orange poly ball floating on the surface of the water.
Trailing buoys

The dorsal view of the fluke and peduncle of a humpback whale calf. The skin on the highest points of the body is open and bleeding. The raw skin has been marked with red circles.
The flukes and peduncle of the calf - chaffed from the line dragging over the tail

Another boat offered to come and stand by for a little while and help document the event. So, we decided to move off again and look at more wildlife. The other boat was only able to stand by for a few minutes, so we didn’t go too far away. The private boat that we had seen earlier fishing in the middle of the dolphin pod, was now headed to the whales at a high speed. As we made our back to Jabiru and calf, we saw the private boat grab one the buoys momentarily before dropping it back in to the water. I immediately called CCS and asked them for an updated ETA and explained that private boaters were attempting to intervene. The response boat was still an hour away from our location. So we decided to make another attempt at our peer pressure we used before when they were fishing with the dolphins. By the time we were 300 yards away, the boat took off at high speed and didn’t come back. We knew we really couldn’t stay another hour until CCS arrived, but we also weren’t ready to leave just yet. The narrower the window of time that the whales were unattended, the better chance that they would be re-sighted. Especially since they had not been moving very much throughout the entire ordeal.

Jabiru continued to herd the calf in circles, mostly while on the left side of the calf. Could she see the line? Was she trying to get the calf to circle enough to make more slack and escape? What was the risk of her becoming entangled with the calf?

A green float and orange poly ball floating next to a humpback whale
As the calf turned in circles, the gear would go slack occasionally

We had seen the line become loose enough to catch Jabiru on the tail or flipper, and without knowing what everything looked like underneath – we couldn’t estimate the risk. As the clock continued to wind down, the unthinkable happened.

The pair of whales made a hard turn and swam under the bow of the boat. This is the one thing you never want to happen during an entanglement event. Many years ago I witnessed a small private boat drive between an entangled whale and the response boat and catch the trailing gear on their propeller. So the private boat was also attached to the whale while the rescue team was attempting to free the whale. So having the whales swim close to our vessel while entangled was something we really were hoping to avoid. Right after they swam under the bow both whales made a hard right and swam at the stern. I was standing on the port side of the boat and saw both whales come around from the stern. The calf was swimming much faster than it had been and was beating its fluke up and down much harder. I was taking a video as they swam and I realized that I couldn’t see the gear anymore.

You can watch the video of what we saw next here.

As soon as I was sure that the gear was not on the whale, I set my camera down and starting moving quickly to the back of the boat. I yelled over my shoulder at the captain to not engage the engines. As I got to the bottom of the staircase to the lower deck, I could see some people looking over the side of the boat on the starboard side. I looked over the edge into the water, the green and orange buoy were there, pinned to the side of the boat. I ran up the starboard side of the boat and grabbed the boat hook from under the bench. I weaved my way back down the side while balancing the boat hook over the rail to avoid hitting anyone on either deck with the pole as I got to the buoys. By the time I was back there again, Captain Johnny was also on the lower deck looking at what had happened. I hooked the gear and pulled it up on to the deck with the captain’s assistance. As we got the last bit of line on to the deck, we could see there was a red section of rope tied in to the set up, and it was frayed and broken. We both looked at it and knew right away what it was, a weak link. This is something that’s put in the gear intentionally by the fisherman to break under force, for situations exactly like this.

Weak links are designed to break under 1,700 lbs of force. That figure was settled on as a reasonable breaking strength to maintain integrity in the gear but also allow for a whale to break it should it become entangled. The intention was to even account for young, injured, or sick whales.

We carried the gear upstairs; I called CCS yet again. Jabiru and calf started swimming east at a high rate of speed. We tried to stick with them for a little while, CCS wasn’t far away. We gave them our best set of last coordinates and heading/speed for the pair and we turned for the harbor. The energy was buzzing on deck as we worked our way back to Gloucester. We were all processing what we had just witnessed. The passengers and crew were inspecting the gear on the upper deck. The team at CCS had passed along a message from NOAA that the gear was now evidence, and they would meet us at the dock to collect it. At about that same time the fisherman contacted our boss at the dock and said they wanted their gear back. I was now filled with dread about who was going to meet us at the dock and what would unfold.

Luckily by the time we got there everyone had sorted themselves out. An enforcement officer and a researcher came and met us at the dock after we had offloaded all the passengers. The fisherman had been informed that NOAA would take the gear to investigate the entanglement event. This does not mean that the fisherman would be accused of harming the whales, the team wanted to look at how the gear functioned after interacting with a whale.

A green float and orange poly ball sitting on top of loosely coiled line
Lobster gear with weak links marked

We unloaded the gear on to the dock for them to examine and then load in their vehicle to take back to their office. The researcher chatted with us for a few minutes about the whole encounter. When she heard that the whale that had the gear on it was a calf, she lit up with excitement. They would have to verify it in the lab, but if a calf could break the weak link, the new program they had piloted in the spring was working as they had hoped.

You can watch a brief video of the gear here.

A local reporter was there at the dock to meet us as well. News travels fast. The fisherman had also told our boss something reassuring that he passed on to us at the dock. After hearing that the gear broke at the weak link, the fisherman said he was glad that he had put them in the gear.

I have seen my fair share of entanglements over the years, I don’t think it ever gets any easier to document. At least this one had a happy, albeit unusual ending.

Jabiru and the calf disappeared for almost two weeks after this occurrence. They did show up again together before the end of the season. It’s hard to say if this calf will survive after all this trauma in the first year of its life. Time will tell. If it makes it, then we hope that it will return to the Massachusetts coast. The scars that this whale has will make it very recognizable even as it continues to grow over the years.

I hope there comes a time in my career when entanglements don’t happen anymore. For now, that seems impossible. The future of rope less fishing gear looks promising, but there is still work to do. It’s not just fishing gear that poses a threat though, any stationary equipment we put in the water poses a risk to wildlife. We have to consider that risk when installing things in the water. I really believe that we have the technology at our disposal to reduce the risk of all types of equipment and gear in the water. It seems to be more a question of motivation and funding than anything else.

I want to see little whales grow up to be adults that we get to enjoy and benefit from for decades as they live long and healthy lives. We need whales in our oceans. They are a crucial part of supporting a robust marine ecosystem.

Humpback Whale jumping out of the water, breaching
Humpback whale Sword, Breaching

There are things we can all do to help make days like these a thing of the past. As a consumer, do you know where your seafood comes from? How is it caught or grown in the ocean? Are there wind farm plans being drafted offshore from where you live? Are there pieces of legislation and candidates that you can support who advocate for safer oceans? Supporting programs that help pilot and fund new fishing gear types is a great thing to research as well. There have been some incredible stewards across the fishing industry who are trying to find a way for us to co-exist. No one wants to catch a whale, so let’s make that a reality. You can also support organizations like the Center for Coastal Studies or a local organization that might be closer to home for you.


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