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Workers aid whale off Whidbey

Biologists from Cascadia Research, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and National Marine Fisheries Service cut lines and floats from a juvenile gray whale near Clinton on Sunday.

"The juvenile gray whale was estimated at 25-30 feet in length," said research biologist John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research. "It had been sighted in recent weeks swimming around northern Puget Sound with some rope tightly wrapped through its mouth and over the top of its head. The rope and float appeared to be crab gear,"

According to Cascadia Research, sightings of a gray whale tangled in gear in Puget Sound dated back to April 17, but the reports had been so infrequent that it proved difficult for researchers to locate the animal. The whale was spotted Saturday near Whidbey Island by a whale-watching boat from Mosquito Fleet.

Calambokidis and his son, Alexei, conducted a gray whale survey Sunday to look for the animal. While they were following one gray whale near Mukilteo, they heard a radio call from a boater telling the Coast Guard the entangled whale was only 3 miles away.

At 2:40 p.m. they located the entangled whale and notified Brent Norberg of National Marine Fisheries Service and Steve Jeffries of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Calambokidis managed to assess the entanglement but did not have the specialized gear needed to free the animal.

The whale was not trailing any ropes or gear, making it impossible to try to secure or stop the animal to conduct the disentanglement, which is the typical procedure, according to Calambokidis. If left untouched, the tightly wrapped rope through the mouth and around the head would likely have been fatal to the animal, he said.

To free the animal, the group had to attempt what's considered one of the hardest and riskiest disentanglement situtations, said Calambokidis.

"The only way to attempt to free the animal was to try and approach it while it swam along and attempt to cut the gear free," he said.

At 5 p.m. Jeffries and Norberg arrived with specialized gear including long poles, a specially designed blade for cutting ropes without injuring the animal, ropes and floats.

Calambokidis and his son picked up Jeffries and Norberg at Mukilteo and the four returned to the whale, now just north of Clinton. While Jeffries and Norberg worked together to operate the long pole, Alexei Calambokidis photographed the whale and John Calambokidis drove the boat to match the whale's speed and approach from behind.

At 6:05 p.m. Jefferies was able to reach and snag the line right at the whale's mouth. Norberg provided a few hard pulls, and the line was cut.

The whale reacted by accelerating and lifting and slapping its flukes, putting water into the boat, the researchers reported. On its next surfacing, it clearly was free of the entangling gear.

The group followed the whale for about an hour to be sure it was free of the gear. As Calambokidis reported, "The whale appeared in good shape and was behaving normally."

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