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Entangled Whale Rescue: Bart the Gray Whale

March 24, 2012

Captain Dave and his wife, Gisele, were headed to dinner with friends Friday evening at 5:30 PM when they received a call from our whale watching boat “Manute’a”. A whale with a huge amount of gillnet wrapped around its tail flukes had been spotted. They quickly abandoned their plans and headed to Dana Point Harbor where they met up with volunteer members of Capt. Dave’s crew, Tom Southern, Mark Tyson and Steve Plantz, and headed out in their whale watching boat to see the entangled whale and attempt to help it before it got dark.

After getting permission from National Marine Fisheries Service they quickly attached a buoy with a strobe light to the whale in the hopes they might be able to stay with the whale through the night and begin the disentanglement process in the morning. Plans went temporarily awry around 9 PM when the whale somehow managed to break free of the buoy and light and the crew members were now unable to follow the whale in the dark.

Knowing that this whale was in serious trouble and that it would be very unlikely that it would ever be seen again they made the decision to try the impossible and attempt to attach another buoy on the whale in the dark. With the engines shut off and listening for the whale in the dark, and with only a small flashlight for lighting, in what Capt. Dave called their ‘first miracle’, they were able to relocate the whale and re-attach the buoy after two hours.

Knowing that the next day would be a very long one, Gisele placed a call to another team member, Peter Bartholomew, and asked if he would ‘babysit a whale through the night’ so the “disentanglement team” could come back and get some rest before the strenuous day that was ahead. Bartholomew readily agreed and after rallying two other volunteers, Hank Davis and Gary Weiberg, headed out to sea to truly ‘whale watch’ throughout the cold night until daylight the next day.

Early Saturday morning the original team from Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari assembled and were joined by Dana Friedman and Scott Davis from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC), and Capt. Dave’s friends Barry Curtis and Mike Johnson. Curtis and Friedman provided their Rigid Bottom Inflatables for the procedures. Bartholomew’s team handed off the whale they had watched throughout the night and the disentanglement team decided to name the whale “Bart” to honor Bartholomew’s efforts.

Working with specialized disentanglement equipment, Capt. Dave led the team through a dramatic effort that continued all day, until shortly before dark. Anderson observed a vast array of dead marine life called “by-catch” caught in the estimated 50-feet of netting.

What happened next was nothing short of astonishing. The team wasn’t sure they would be able to finish the job with time running out before dark when one of the control lines snapped. “Bart” submerged, taking four huge buoys with him like a scene from Jaws. When he surfaced one minute later, the pull of the buoys had broken off the last of the partly severed ropes and netting and Bart was free.

“Bart” went first to the second support vessel and swam close by and underneath it several times. After placing their face masks in the water and taking underwater photos, they were able to confirm that “Bart” was now free of nets. “Bart” then went back to the first boat, and came close enough to be touched. He raised his head out of the water, and opened his mouth. Team members all felt that this was his way of saying ‘thank you’.

A sea lion, a leopard shark, two angel sharks, various crabs, fish and rays were all caught in the net. “This whale was towing an entire ecosystem behind it,” said Anderson, “Nearly a thousand dolphins and whales die in nets every day, and untold numbers of other marine life die as well. Seeing it right there, in front of me, only made me want to get the word even more.”