On March 17, 2004 a young North Atlantic right whale, probably just a little over a year old, was sighted off the southeast of the US with fishing gear wrapped around his body. This young and vulnerable whale had thick rope tightly bound around his body twice, just behind his blowhole and then wrapping around each of his pectoral fins, restricting his movements. Additionally, the rope was estimated to trail for 100 yards behind the whale, adding drag to his swimming and further tightening the rope to the point that it cut into the his flesh. Disentanglement teams quickly assembled to do what they could to free this young whale from his suffering.
Photo Credit: US Coast Guard
One of the issues however, is that injured wild animals don’t often sit still and wait to be helped….and right whales are no different. In fact, right whales often thrash their large flukes during disentanglement attempts. They also are not known for slowing down (or better yet stopping) – all making disentangling a right whale very difficult and dangerous. Right whales have even been known to tow a small rescue boat for miles. For these reasons, disentanglement attempts are carefully planned; weather and sea conditions must be optimal in order to embark on a disentangling endeavor. Fortunately, in this case the entangled juvenile was close to shore and weather and sea conditions were favorable, giving the disentanglement team a chance to mount a response. With the assistance of the United States Coast Guard cutter, Kingfisher, the disentanglement team was able to successfully approach the young right whale. They were even successful in removing the line tightly embedded around his body and left flipper. Sadly the whale’s right pectoral flipper could not be freed from the rope. This remaining gear threatened to continue cutting into the whale’s right pectoral fin, leaving this young whale prone to debilitating injury and serious infection. The team attached a telemetry buoy to the gear remaining on the whale so they could track him in hopes of getting another chance to free him from the remaining, horrific entanglement. Also this young whale, previously referred to as #3346, was given the name Kingfisher in honor of the US Coast Guard vessel assisting in the rescue attempts. Unfortunately, rough weather set in and Kingfisher moved further offshore, making it impossible for teams to try another approach. And so the quest to monitor and track Kingfisher began, for two weeks rescuers had been tracking him north along the East coast when the Disentanglement Network hotline received a call from a Cape May fishing captain who reported he had the telemetry buoy aboard his boat. The captain went on to report that he never saw a whale but had caught the line in his propeller. The disentanglement teams, along with concerned citizens following Kingfisher’s plight, hoped this newest turn of events did not mean the worst and that Kingfisher was still alive. Then, against all odds, at sunset on January 11, 2005, Kingfisher was spotted by the New England Aquarium aerial team off the coast of Georgia during a survey of right whale winter habitat. Even more surprisingly, despite his continued entanglement was that he seemed to be in good condition. Today, exactly 9 years later, Kingfisher still lives with his right flipper entangled, and the gear continues to tighten, cutting into flesh and bone and causing chronic injury and pain. His is an unlikely story; most whales do not survive such a severe entanglement. We hope for his continued health and ask you to join us in our efforts to reduce the risk of entanglement in fishing gear in order to prevent other cases like Kingfisher’s.