Newport Beach, CA

Rescue team races to help entangled humpback whale off Southern California coast

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Rescue team races to help entangled humpback whale off Southern California coastshuttershock

Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Coordinator, said the rescue team wasn’t able to get telemetry on the whale because ocean conditions made it too hard to get close, but hope to find the whale again Thursday and keep trying.

The race is on to save an entangled humpback whale that has been spotted the past few days off Southern California’s coastline, the latest sighting and rescue effort happening Wednesday, June 23, off Newport Beach.

The emaciated whale, which likely got caught up in Dungeness crab gear off Washington’s coast, is at risk of starvation, experts worry.

The entangled whale was first spotted off Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Islands, on Sunday, June 20, and again on Tuesday by Harbor Breeze Cruises’ Capt. Kevin Nguyen, who encountered the juvenile humpback at about 4:45 p.m. off the Port of Los Angeles Harbor between shipping lanes, according to  Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a whale expert and naturalist for the Natural History Museum.

Capt. Chris Batts, also with Harbor Breeze, documented the whale’s behavior and took photos, showing a buoy indicating the entangled gear was from Washington state. The gear was wrapped around the fluke area.

The sighting Tuesday, June 22,  was too late in the day to send out a rescue team.

The humpback approached both boats, blew two-to-four times at the surface and then dove down for five minutes.

That was the same behavior Brian Lawler, operating a Newport Coastal Adventure charter boat, reported on Wednesday off Laguna Beach when he and passengers encountered the whale at about noon.

“This one is approaching boats, almost like it’s asking for help,” said Newport Coastal Adventure owner Ryan Lawler, cousin to Brian Lawler. “The whale would come right up to the boat.”

Lawler’s fleet helped track the whale through the day until rescue crews from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s West Coast Large Whale Entanglement Team arrived at about 4 p.m. off Newport Beach’s coast to help.

“The whale is not in good health, it’s skinny,” Ryan Lawler said. “But we’re just really glad we were able to make the sighting relatively early in the day.”

A strong swell and whipping winds made the rescue effort challenging. If the team is unable to rescue the whale, they could try and get a satellite tag placed on it so they could track it and try again tomorrow.

Taking whale watchers out and coming across such a tragic sight is never easy, Lawler said.

“In some sense we feel pretty let down that we have to show people wildlife that’s suffering because of human consequences,” he said. “I explain there is a fleet of whale-watching boats off of Orange County that are keeping tabs on it, handing it off to each other.”

He said the humpback was about 25-to-30-feet long, a smaller-sized whale that was noticeably skinny.

“It looks like it hasn’t eaten in a month or more,” he said. “It’s not like the whale has given up, but it’s severely encumbered. Hopefully it can start feeding. It is a race. If this one slips by without getting that gear off, it’s probably another month or less before it dies.”

Boaters who see the whale should not approach it or try and disentangle it. If possible, stay with the whale, take photos or video and call the NOAA Entangled Whale Hotline 1-877-SOS-WHALE or contact the USCG on CH 16.

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