As they headed back toward the central California coast after fishing for slime eel in the Pacific Ocean, Sam Synstelien and Nicholas Taron made a troubling discovery: a humpback whale was entangled in a buoy’s rope, frantically trying to free itself.
Synstelien immediately called the U.S. Coast Guard but was told it might take a few hours for someone to get there. The two commercial fishermen thought that could be too long for the whale to survive its predicament.
“(The whale) was just swimming in counter-clockwise circles,” Taron told NBC Bay Area. “You could tell he was stressed and being held to the bottom.”
Instead of waiting for the Coast Guard or leaving the whale behind, Synstelien and Taron decided to try to save its life. They cranked up the volume on the radio of their 27-foot-long boat (aptly named “Persistence”) and shouted into the microphone to get the frantic, 40-foot-long humpback’s attention.
“We were screaming at the whale, ‘You’re either going to help us out and quit swimming away or else, like, good luck,’” Taron said.
The two were able to cut through the rope wound around the whale’s tail, but the rope still entangled its midsection. Synstelien decided to try to free it himself. As Taron recorded a video on his cell phone, Synstelien jumped onto the whale and shimmied up its back.
He was able to cut through the rope and free the whale, who slapped the side of the boat with its enormous tail.
“Did you get it?” Taron shouts to Synstelien in the video. Holding the knife between his teeth as he treads the water, Synstelien raises his arms as Taron shrieks, “Yeah!”
Many consider Synstelien a hero for risking his life to save the whale, but the Coast Guard and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are concerned that others may be inspired to take the same action when they see a whale or other wild animal in distress, and the outcome could be tragically different.
NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region spokesman Jim Milbury told the Washington Post the best way to deal with an entangled whale “is to never get into the water with it, as these animals are very powerful and dangerous in close proximity.”
Another NOAA spokesman, Justin Veizbicke, concurred. “We’ve had people die trying to get in the water, and just last year, we lost one of our responders,” he told NBC Bay Area.
Veizbicke said people often think entangled sea animals are in eminent danger, but that isn’t necessarily true. “Even though it seems like it’s a very stressful situation, we usually have days, weeks, sometimes even months to find these animals and get this gear off,” he said.
But many of these animals aren’t so lucky. The ropes and fishing gear that entangle whales can cause serious wounds, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Those wounds can attract sharks, which was the case three years ago when researchers rescued an entangled humpback whale in the Gulf of Maine that had been trapped for days and was about to be attacked by one of the predators.
Another danger of entanglement is that, like the humpback Synstelien rescued, ropes and fishing lines can anchor whales to the ocean floor, causing them to drown.
Although what he did was definitely risky, Synstelien should be commended for taking that chance. It seems especially fitting, since humpbacks themselves are known for their altruism toward other species. They have been observed around the world risking their lives to save gray whales, seals and sea lions from attacking orcas.
Synstelien and Taron trained for years to receive their marine transportation licenses and were well aware of the risks they were taking. Yet they knew they couldn’t just leave the trapped humpback behind.
“We were trying to help out a friendly giant,” Taron told the Washington Post.
If you’re out on the water and spot an animal in distress, you’re advised to call the Coast Guard at 877-SOS-WHALE or NOAA at 877-767-9425.
This article was first published by Care2.com on 13 Nov 2018.