Entangled humpback whale freed in waters off Kona

Entangled humpback whale. Image credit: D. Fukushima/NOAA MMHSRP (permit no. 24359)

Entangled humpback whale. Image credit: D. Fukushima/NOAA MMHSRP (permit no. 24359)

Authorized and trained responder Colin Cornforth with some of the entangling gear removed from the humpback whale. Image credit: B. Lonergan/NOAA MMHSRP (permit no. 24359)

A humpback whale was freed Tuesday after it was found in a life-threatening entanglement of rope and gear in West Hawaii waters.

The whale was freed of a bundle of gear and buoys by a trained team as it swam in waters off Keahole Point and Kona International Airport, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which along with the state manages the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.


The whale was first spotted late Monday by Ocean Sports off the Mauna Lani resort in South Kohala. Officials said the report came in too late in the day to respond.

On Tuesday, another sighting of the entangled whale was reported by Ocean Encounters near the airport off North Kona, according to NOAA. The vessel stayed with the mammal until responders could make their way to the area.

At 3:30 p.m., a “trained and well-equipped” team on a dedicated Captain Zodiac zoomed out of Honokohau Harbor to document and assess the whale.

After assessment and “real-time, offsite consultation” with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary team, the responders prepared a hooked knife on the end of a 30-foot carbon-fiber pole to get close enough to the animal to safely remove the line. In all, two buoys and roughly 100 feet of line and netting was removed, according to NOAA.

“The animal is believed to be fully disentangled with some non-wrapping embedded lines that will hopefully be shed over time,” the statement said. “While the animal is no longer entangled, the impacts of the entanglement remain. The animal was in poor condition, emaciated, and suffering physical trauma. However, it now has a much better chance of survival.”

The recovered gear will be assessed to determine its origin and use, to better understand the entanglement risk and reduce the threat of future entanglements, NOAA said.

The Hawaiian Islands are the principal winter breeding grounds for the North Pacific humpback whale population. Each winter and spring approximately half of the north Pacific humpback whales, representing thousands of animals, visit the waters around the Hawaiian Islands, including sanctuary waters. The whales are generally seen in Hawaii from November through April, with the peak season from January through March.

Mariners are asked to keep a sharp lookout for whales in distress, but not to approach closely or attempt to assist them. It is illegal to approach a humpback whale closer than 100 yards by any means by sea or drone and closer than 1,000 feet by aircraft. NOAA-authorized responders are the only individuals permitted to assist entangled whales and other marine mammals, in coordination with federal laws.

To report an injured or entangled marine mammal, keep a safe and legal distance and call the statewide NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at (888) 256-9840 or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16 immediately. To report a vessel coming too close to a whale, call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964 or email respectwildlife@noaa.gov.

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