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Whale Endangerment & Entanglement

Humpback whale underwater, tangled in fishing gear

“The five most frequently entangled large whale species include the humpback whale, gray whale, minke whale, blue whale, and North Atlantic right whale. Even when people do everything right, many of these entangled animals can not be freed.”- Kim Sawicki

2020 broke records for more than the tragic loss of life across the globe due to COVID-19. 2020 also marked the year of the hottest greenhouse gas temperatures ever on record. Temperatures maxed out and in the USA, August was the 6th warmest month on record, ever. Even with the cooling trends that La Niña influenced in the second half of the year. More astonishing was that 2020 as a whole was one of the three warmest years to ever be recorded on the planet since the mid-1800s. Sea levels have continued to rise, ocean heat and permafrost all broke records again in 2020 just previously broken the year before. According to the State of the Climate Report, led by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the National Centers for Environmental Information, surface temperatures, atmospheric and global surface temps, global upper surface ocean temperatures and tropical cyclones were all well above average and some boasting new high records. The State of the Climate Report is based upon several “contributions from more than 530 scientists from over 60 countries around the world and reflects tens of thousands of measurements from multiple independent datasets (highlights, full report). Providing detailed updates on global climate indicators, notable weather events and other data collected by environmental monitoring stations and instruments located on land, water, ice and in space.”

All of this data illustrates the changes taking place within our climate that have a profound impact on marine life and is one of the main foundations for widespread global whale endangerment.

Whale Endangerment vs. Whale Entanglement

All marine species everywhere in the world are affected by human activity. Any type of impactful environmental change including everything mentioned above the sea to underwater pollution counts too. Underwater noise, loss of habitat, reduced food sources, ingesting of plastics, underwater and above water toxics, sound pollution and sonar testing, overall climate change, ship strikes, and commercial whaling are all considered types of whale endangerment.

Phytoplankton is the foundation for the sea’s entire marine food web. As humans, we also rely on them because all oxygen is created by plants, and scientists believe that phytoplankton is responsible for making between 50 and 85% of our planet’s oxygen. In its simplest form, without phytoplankton, the levels of carbon dioxide in our air would rise to unbreathable levels and marine food sources would deplete, leaving our oceans bare. A life without phytoplankton is having no life at all.

A phenomenon called upwelling is responsible for bringing up cold, rich nutrient-dense water and mixing it around at the water’s surface, oxygenating the seaweed then creating the opportunity for phytoplankton to bloom. When this reaction occurs, the result is algae blooms and the feeding frenzy of tiny shrimp-like organisms called krill. Warming oceans and rising sea levels severely and negatively impact the reproduction of krill, the main food source for all large baleen whales.

When a whale is caught in any ocean debris and is either at risk for survival or found compromised and expired, this is considered a whale entanglement. In 2020 humpback whales continued to be at the top of the charts, as the most common species entangled with 10 separate entanglements confirmed. Additionally, six gray whales and one sperm whale were also confirmed entangled.

A Whale’s Impact

It is true that once you interact with a whale, they leave a mark on your heart and your memory, forever. The impact they leave on you is truly indescribable and can be difficult to eloquently capture into words as you share and recap your experience with others. It is the robust sound of the exhale of their breath of life, seeing the sheer size of the space they take up in this world and how small you feel next to them, bearing witness to their marvel is what captivates us. Whales are everything and they are precious.

​​A Poem by Captain Dave

Time stops.

The image burns into a lasting memory.

You can’t wait to tell someone, anyone

you search for words – but find them inadequate.

Years later you still see them leaping all around you, explosions of water…

like fireworks.

Hundreds of wild animals that have every reason to fear you –

not fleeing in terror

– instead –

swimming towards you

and with you –

jumping and playing.

You want to be like one of them

and for just a moment –

you are.

A gift from above

for those who are willing…

come to the water.

– Captain Dave

Some whales may have a different viewpoint of this romantic story. Some precious moments are indeed filled with beautiful reciprocity. When whales allow humans to experience the beauty of their wild underwater world below or interact at the ocean’s surface with a mutual experience as though it is “shared” it feels magical. But some whales do not have this romance novel ingrained in their mind. For some whales, their memories are surrounded by the ultimate fear of becoming another number on the seemingly unending death toll due to whale entanglement. For whales, they live a life plagued by whale endangerment and it is us, mankind’s imprint, leaving them with a vulnerable future.

Can Whales Survive a Whale Entanglement?

Throughout the last month, Dana Point whale watching trips on Capt. Dave’s Whale Watching and Dolphin Safari provided our passengers with thrilling marine life sightings. Just last week, our waters were graced by the reappearance of a local favorite humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, named “Twitch”.  First sighted in 2020 by experienced marine naturalist and award-winning filmmaker, author, photographer, speaker, and conservationist Capt. Dave Anderson along with our amazing captains and crew at Capt. Dave’s Dolphin Safari, Twitch has become a local celebrity whale. His very recognizable tail injury is his defining characteristic.

It is believed that Twitch has undergone an encounter with fishing gear that ultimately led to a whale entanglement. The initial injuries to his fluke were severe but over the last year, our sightings have shown us that he is recovering well and appears to be thriving! Each humpback whale can be tracked and studied through the recognition of the specific markings unique to that particular individual’s tail.

Seeing Twitch was not only a wonderful surprise for passengers and crew but also an opportunity to track and log his recovery progress, which appears to be going ‘whaley’ great! These types of sightings are impactful for the whale community and can ultimately help to provide better statistics on overall whale endangerment.

Another interesting sighting to rescue teams this summer was in mid-July when a fin whale, Balaenoptera Physalus, was sighted just south of the Dana Point Harbor and was seen entangled around its head near its two blowholes. The lines appeared to be wrapped tightly around the whale’s rostrum, making its way to the top of the whale’s head constricting natural airflow. Obstruction of air causes increased stress levels to the animal, elevating the risk of this whale becoming too tired to go on.

This whale entanglement was last seen above Newport Beach and sadly, there have not been any reports of seeing this beautiful creature again since July 16th, 2021.

The State of Endangered Whales Today

Sadly, the threat of whale endangerment and whale entanglement are the top killers of whales today. Each year ship strikes continue to rise and are at the top spot of whale mortality. These numbers continue to grow by 3% annually. Coastal areas frequented by whales and dolphins are also now being used as shipping lanes as the sale of international goods continues to rise. These shipping lanes become home to loud disruptive vessels that can disconnect whales from being able to communicate with one another, causing them to become lost or worse, not be able to navigate through the path of a ship and unable to get out of the way in time before falling victim to a deadly ship strike.

Not every whale is as lucky as Twitch to have survived such an injury to the tail. It is estimated that whale entanglement kills approximately 1,000 dolphins and whales around the world every single day. Even more staggering is the amount of whales and dolphins who are threatened each year through fisheries bycatch. The World Wildlife Organization identified “an estimated minimum of 300,000 whales and dolphins killed each year due to fisheries bycatch, while others succumb to a myriad of threats including shipping and habitat loss.” With the growing demand for seafood trending upwards, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service conducts studies to help paint a larger picture of what is happening with whale endangerment and through their thorough research, are trying to understand how underwater lines, ropes, chains, fishing gear (both active and derelict) adversely affect the physical well being of whales.

“The whales do not sing because they have an answer, they sing because they have a song.” – Gregory Colbert

How Does a Whale Entanglement Occur?

It’s time to sit down at your local dinner hotspot and you decide to order the chef’s special catch of the day. The first image that comes to one’s mind is usually not an illustration depicting whale endangerment. Likely, the image of a whale roaming the vast ocean in search of its depleting food source, or caricature of a dying whale singing their last fragile song filled with fear, lying nearly lifeless caught in a net of total despair is far from most people’s thoughts. International waters have very limited (if any) regulations on the length of the fishing nets being widely used by many International fishing vessels. Wreaking havoc on whales, fishing nets can easily wrap around a whale’s body, fins and/or fluke as they innocently swim by. Unsuspecting whales then incur damage to their massive body, much like we read above, with Twitch. Becoming part of the by-catch from longline fishing nets is one of the largest threats whales face today. Coupled with that of their larger size and curious nature, nets, ropes, chains, and other underwater debris lurking in their migration patterns all become underwater obstacles that can result in death, should a whale have interaction with it. If whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other marine mammals are not able to dislodge themselves from these nets or swim because their fins, flippers, or flukes become intertwined, it leaves them paralyzed underwater without the ability to breathe. Like all mammals, whales need oxygen to breathe and if they are unable to swim to the surface to get air due to any type of whale endangerment under the water’s surface, the result is deadly.

How You Can Help Limit Whale Endangerment

There is a multitude of impactful steps that you can easily take to help create a safer environment for the whales of the world. One of the easiest actions you can take is to limit the amount of fish you consume and how you consume it. Supporting local sustainable fishing reduces your carbon footprint and aids in safely keeping whales away from various whale endangerments. In the United States when dining out to eat, remember to ask your server if the fish served at the restaurant is sustainably caught within the confines of the United States. Stringent fishing laws are in place in the United States unlike that of many international waters so this is a great way to make a difference and your decision has an immediate impact on the overall sale of fish. Your seafood choices matter! Seafood Watch is another great site produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and keeps up to date on many restaurants actively participating in only purchasing food sources from environmentally sustainably caught seafood fishing vessels. Seafood Watch breaks down the types of fish they recommend avoiding in each geographic region and provides readers with suggestions on what to opt-in for instead. Again, another easy way to make an impactful difference where it matters most-at the cash register resulting in less whale endangerment.

Doing Our Part

Captain Dave’s Whale Watching and Dolphin Safari is a whale watching safari founded on the principle of connecting and creating a bond with nature and experiencing whales in their natural environment. Advocating for whales is our priority. Are you ready to see whales up close and create your relationship with these gentle giants? Aboard every trip, our experienced marine naturalists narrate your tour and fuel your mind with key insight and knowledge of a whale’s world and will share their passion with you for these amazing animals. Underway, captains and crew look forward to answering your questions about the effects of whale endangerment and the harm fishing poses on whale entanglements. Whether it is pulling balloons out of the water and explaining why Mylar looks just like a jellyfish once it lands in the water (and they ALL land in the water eventually) or calling in a sighting of a California Sea Lion with fishing gear wrapped around its neck, our team is always there and you too become part of the journey, once you are aboard.

Captain Dave founded Orange County’s first whale rescue team. Alongside a network of NOAA-trained disentanglement team members, he has been hands-on involved with multiple whale disentanglement efforts, including gray whales and the first attempt at disentangling a massive blue whale, the largest known animal on earth.

The State of Whales Today

The Marine Mammal Protection Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972, protects all cetaceans and all marine wildlife, making it illegal to “take” marine mammals for sale (importing or exporting) and includes protection against harassment, feeding, hunting, capture, or killing any marine mammal, or to attempt to do so. This act has helped slow down overall whale endangerment but sadly is not capable of protecting every whale in the ocean. Humans continue to have an unprecedented impact on marine wildlife and unfortunately, even after countless hours and decades of protection, six of the 13 great whale species are still currently classified as either vulnerable or endangered. Devastatingly, one whale species currently lives in serious jeopardy with less than 400 North Atlantic right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, living in the world today.

Together, we can do our part to do what is best for these animals. Reducing carbon footprints, consuming less fish, and only from sustainably caught fishing vessels all have a profound impact on the state of whale endangerment. Join us today, and continue your journey on creating a connection with dolphins, whales, and marine life of all shapes and sizes!

Until then,

The Team at Capt. Dave’s Whale Watching and Dolphin Safari

*The State of the Climate in 2020  is the 31st edition in a peer-reviewed series published annually as a special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The journal makes the full report openly available online.

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