The young whale was spotted on Friday night off the coast of Southern California at Dana Point, dragging along a hopelessly entangled commercial fishing wire. It had been estimated that the whale had been tangled up for about a week, judging by the decomposing contents of the net.
The nylon netting had just about everything in it: "We had a sea lion, we had several sharks ... the whole ecosystem, you know, was in that netting," said Dave Anderson, who works with DolphinSafari.com and who was part of the weekend rescue operation.
The National Marine Fisheries Services gave Anderson a green light to attach buoys to the whale in order to keep track of it overnight; it also gave Anderson time to assemble a rescue crew for the following morning.
Cutting through all that wire without hurting the whale proved a formidable task. The effort required the boat crew to follow the whale mile after mile out to sea as rescuers cut the lines bit by bit.
"It was getting very frightening towards the end of the day because we were running out of time," Anderson told a media outlet in L.A. Crews had to use grappling hooks and lines to reel in the whale while cutting through 50 feet of the netting with a knife. When the last line snapped, the buoys suddenly dove beneath the surface.
"Those buoys just went under the water all of a sudden," Anderson said to reporters. "And when they went under the water, I mean, it was like a scene from 'Jaws.'"
When the whale came back up, he was free. And don’t think he took all that effort for granted. Rescuers shouted and cried as he came right up to a boat and almost nudged it.
"He came right up to our boat and almost mouthed, like, a thank you. It was pretty awesome,” Anderson, who conducts whale-watching tours in the area, added.
The gray whale as a species now inhabits only the North Pacific Ocean. It was probably hunted to extinction in the Atlantic and Mediterranean regions, where it was found prior to the 1700’s. Its Western North Pacific (Asian) population is critically endangered. The species will likely be reduced to isolated populations in the eastern North Pacific, spanning the region from Alaska to Baja California.