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Baby whale’s entanglement puts emphasis again on ocean debris

The fate of a tangled baby whale off the coast of Orange County has sparked an urgent multi-agency rescue effort, once again underscoring the dangers ocean debris poses to marine mammals and other wildlife.

The baby gray whale has a rope around its mouth and drags through the water behind it. This prompted a team of marine animal experts from Dana Point in Monterey to closely follow the whale, hoping to get close enough to free it.

As the calf grows, the rope could tighten around it, which could tear skin or break limbs. The consequences could be fatal.

“Unfortunately, with most of these tangles, if the whale can’t get rid of it and we can’t remove it,” said Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, “they ultimately lead to death. . “

Along the California coast, the calf and its mother make the grueling annual migration for food off the coast of Alaska. They left their winter home in Mexico, where Viezbicke said the mother had likely spent a busy season breeding and calving, to swim around the clock with a dwindling energy reserve. A stronghold of killer whales looms in Monterey, he added.

A volunteer photographer at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach spotted the mother-child pair Monday as they took part in a tour of Captain Dave’s Dolphin Safari near Dana Point Harbor, PMMC spokesperson Krysta Higuchi said. A team of workers from the PMMC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quickly loaded onto a boat to rescue the entangled whale.

Every year, according to NOAA, billions of pounds of trash enter the ocean, and nets, ropes and other boat gear are added to the debris.

In the current rescue, said Viezbicke, the aim is to save the whale, but also to learn how to avoid another entanglement. NOAA reported 17 whale entanglements along the west coast last year.

“The entanglement response team is really a band-aid,” Viezbicke said. “We want to be more preventive than reactive in nature.”

But when the boat approached the couple, Viezbicke said, the mother whale went into protective mode – pushing the calf towards the shore while positioning itself between it and the boat, hiding her child under her and rocking under the water to escape the rescue team.

“Like any protective parent, the last thing you want is a boat that flies around the water and nails your child to the ground,” Viezbicke said, adding that the calf is probably less than a year old. “This is clearly not this mom’s first rodeo.”

After nearly five hours, the mother whale was so restless, he said, that the team decided to go home.

“It adds a whole other dynamic to where it’s really about human security,” Viezbicke said. “All it takes is a tail stroke and we’re done. This makes him extremely dangerous.

Whale watcher Phil Kreis took his drone to Point Dume in Malibu on Tuesday to see the sights. He filmed the calf sliding through the sea foam green water, the rope hanging from its mouth. This was only the second time that Kreis had captured images of a calf, so he was euphoric.

“It’s a bit like a video game. When he walks in it’s exhilarating, ”Kreis said. “It’s awesome. I love when the whales come in. “

Just as he was getting the drone ready for the night, another whale enthusiast, Alison Mytych, called out to him. Mytych has religiously counted whales during the migration season for the past nine years. All Tuesday she had been on high alert for the mother-to-little one, spending all day at Point Dume Beach because of an “instinct” that they were going to swim. As she walked away for tea, she called to check in with Kreis and heard about his sighting.

Mytych quickly calculated how fast the whales were swimming, then jumped into his car. As she drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach where she figured they would go next, she said she spotted the couple in the water.

“I was like yes, yes, yes!” Mytych said in an interview Thursday. While providing information to NOAA, she tracked the whales to another beach before watching them swim away from Leo Carrillo State Beach until sunset.

“It was absolutely perfect,” she said, adding that she loved whales her whole life.

A former nurse, Mytych underwent cancer treatment throughout the pandemic.

“Being at the beach for the whales motivated me to recover, to get back in shape, to regain my stamina, my energy,” she said. “Whales, as much as I love to see [them], I feel like they are helping me.

Viezbicke said he expects the whales to show up next to Monterey, where the killer whales live. The mother will likely be even more protective of her cubs, he said, which could make another encounter with the humans trying to help difficult. A team of experts from California to Washington are preparing for their arrival – and, hopefully, a rescue.

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