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Entangled Whale Rescue: Gray Whale Lily

Day One, May 10, 2010: The whale arrived in our channel around noon. We see a gray whale in our harbor at least once a year, so no one thought there was a problem. Just another visit from a gray whale heading north. Everyone is always excited and we enjoy the visit.

Day Two, May 11, 2010: People are thrilled the whale is still here, but we wonder why the whale is still here. Dave watches the whale for hours and is concerned about the whales rapid breathing patterns. A woman on the rocks insists that she could see a rope under the whale, but one can see it now. As darkness approaches, the whale enters the harbor again. After studying numerous photos and shots from the news helicopters, we all agree there is at least one line under the whale’s body. It’s too late in the day to begin a disentanglement effort, which averages 6 to 8 hours. The OC Whale Disentanglement Team members are called and are ready to go the next morning if the whale is still in the harbor.

Day Three, May 12, 2010: Team member Dean Gomersall spots the whale at 6 AM and calls Dave. Sea World is notified and National Marine Fisheries Services authorizes the team, led by Eric Otjen of Sea World to attempt the disentanglement. The rescue on May 12th will be the first Disentanglement effort for the team who was trained over a year ago by Ed Lyman, under the guidance of NMFS who has participated in over 80 such rescues. More than ironic is that as the Disentanglement Team suits up on the dock of the very building where they were all trained over a year ago, the whale languishes, bound in nets only 100 feet away. Am I the only one who thinks that it’s more than amazing that a tangled up whale would show up on he doorstep of the team’s training center?

So many people took part in the effort and played valuable roles. Whether they were on the primary rescue boat, or the second boat, ready to trade off with tired team members, passing over equipment as it was needed or helping to keep lines clear, or even on land, waiting for instructions, each person executed their roles flawlessly. The very first and most important step is to approach the whale and attach a large orange buoy. This enables the team to track the whale if it decides to leave before the procedure is complete. After that, the team works to locate and pull away the lines, so that the cutting equipment can be used without hurting the whale. Under no circumstances can the team get in the water. A 20- or 30-ton injured whale, along with handheld knives is not a good recipe for the safety of the whale or the men. Even in the boat, the men’s lives were at risk when they were lifting the whale’s flukes to cut lines. One tail swipe can easily break the neck of a man. Slowly, line was cut away from the whale’s mouth and pectoral fins. The toughest part was removing the wrapped lines from the whale’s tail, which was several feet below water. To reach it, the team had to pull the tail up to the surface.

Thankfully, the whale was cooperative. As each rope was cut away, the whale, now nicknamed ‘Lily’ by team member Barry Curtis, seemed to perk up. Even so the whale was extremely emaciated and tired. Finally free of the lines Lily headed for the open sea at a steady 1/2 knot. The average whale swims at about three to four knots, so Capt. Dave is saying that this whale is operating at about 10 to 20% of what is normal. The challenge for this whale is that it hasn’t eaten in at least eight months. We understand that gray whales do not feed on their migration and Lily probably left Alaska in October. After going without food for that long, coupled with the exertion and stress of the lines, she is weak. Lily needs nourishment.

Day Four, May 13, 2010: Lily is back, spotted around 8 AM by Mike Bursk, of the Ocean Institute. Mike called Dave and we have notified NMFS, Sea World and the team. At this point, there is little the team can do, but each of these men feels a strong connection to Lily and they want to be there to do whatever they can. Dave is with other team members as they track Lily. Joe Cordaro of the National Marine Fisheries Service says it appears Lily is fatigued and malnourished. He says crews will not become involved unless she beaches herself. 12:11 PM Dave is with Lily and can see that there is more line on her flukes. NMFS would be the decision maker in any efforts to help the whale. 7:45 PM Dave has been with Lily all day and doesn’t feel that whatever line is still attached is hampering her progress. At this point there are many possibilities…some of them are she is resting, she is foraging for food or she is dying. Joe Cordaro of NMFS also suggested that she may ‘know’ there are transient Orca in the area and want to stay in a safe place. As Joe said, “It’s hard to get into the head of that whale.” Sadly, another gray whale off Washington’s coast has been in a similar situation, this one heavily encumbered by lines. Disentanglement efforts by Cascadia Research have been going on for two days, and will resume tomorrow. According to Dave’s research, 1000 dolphins and whales are caught and die in nets around the world, every day.

Day Five, May 14, 2010: Sad to say, Lily died around 3 PM today. After hours and hours of listlessly swimming near the surf line at Doheny Beach, Lily came to rest in the surf. Barry Curtis, a trained member of the team, as well as a dear friend had been out on the water watching her for hours and days and had already went to the beach where he believed she would finally beach herself. He was there when Lily breathed her last breath, looking into her beautiful big eye. He said he felt she was at peace; and Barry, believing, like us, that there is a wonderful place called heaven where we will go, prayed that this whale would be there, too. We do too, Amen.

March, 2012: Captain Dave published “Lily, A Gray Whale’s Odyssey”. He worked on this project 18 months, writing and re-writing for hundreds and hundreds of hours. The care, attention and passion that he poured into this was incredible. Learn more about the book.