Whale Watching Trip Turns into Successful International Whale Rescue!

Original story can be viewed here.

Photo credit: Bar Harbor Whale Watch
Hang-glide. Photo credit: Bar Harbor Whale Watch

When nearly 200 people set sail on a whale watch from Bar Harbor, Maine, they never expected to be party to a whale rescue. Yet, that is exactly what happened on a sunny afternoon in early June.

A vessel owned by Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company, a member of NOAA Fisheries WhaleSENSE Program, was having trouble finding whales. So, Captains Brain Silverman and Bryce Moody, decided to travel farther than normal into Canadian waters. Two hours later, they came across a nine-year-old entangled humpback whale. The whale was identified as Hang-glide. This particular whale was named hang-glide for the unique dark markings on its white tail that resemble a hang-glider by researchers from The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, MA.

“We were near the entrance to the Bay of Fundy, when we spotted what looked like a bunch of balloons. They turned out to be buoys attached to fishing gear. The whale was caught in ropes and seemed to be anchored in place,” said Bar Harbor Whale Watch naturalist, Zack Klyver. “We immediately notified the Canadian Coast Guard and whale rescue team to relay our position and our assessment of the whale’s condition.”

The whale watch vessel stood by for nearly two hours, extending what typically is a four hour trip to seven hours. During this time, they provided reports and upon returning, pictures to the Coast Guard and the Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The information the Bar Harbor-based vessel shared helped whale biologists understand how the whale was doing and what they should do help it. The next morning a rescue team headed up by Campobello fisherman Mackie Green, including Canadian government officials, and biologists from the Campobello Whale Rescue Team and International Fund for Animal Welfare were able to successfully free the animal.

According to Klyver, the company received a flurry of phone calls from concerned members of the public who had been on the whale watch, eager to know what happened to the whale.

“This was my family’s first whale watch,” said Trina Smolen “My family was particularly concerned about what was going to happen to the whale. I think it is really great that Bar Harbor Whale Watch had trained and experienced staff  who knew exactly what to do when we came upon the distressed animal.”

The rescue team found four humpbacks in the area, and were able to identify hang-glide due to pictures sent by the whale watch crew the night before. After four hours of painstaking work, rescuers were able to cut it free. The whale was reported to be in good condition when it swam away.

“The entire operation was a great success thanks to the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company for standing by and helping the rescue team locate the animal,” said Allison Rosner, WhaleSense program coordinator for NOAA Fisheries. “It’s likely that without their accurate location information, the whale would not have been found because prior to the arrival of the rescue team, the surface buoys and markers had been cut even though the animal remained entangled in the rope underwater.”

Whale watching is an important industry for many coastal communities from Maine through Virginia. Currently one-third of the whale watching industry from Maine to Virginia is participating in the Whale SENSE program. Over 1 million people have participated in a whale watch conducted by members of the Whale SENSE program. This voluntary program promotes responsible whale watching, respecting the whales’ natural behaviors, while also maximizing passenger enjoyment and educational experience.

To become a Whale SENSE participant, company vessel operators and the naturalists who narrate tours attend annual trainings on whale watching guidelines and regulations, safe operations, and whale ecology. After completing the program, NOAA grants the whale watch company full use of the Whale SENSE logo to promote its business and lists the company on the Whale SENSE website.

While public education is the cornerstone of this partnership, the whale watch industry also helps federal agencies and authorized organizations address a key threat to large whales — entanglement in fishing gear. Since the program began, at least 17 whale entanglements have been reported by Whale SENSE boats.  In instances where Whale SENSE participants were standing by, rescuers were able to more quickly find and help distressed animals.

These companies also aid in ongoing efforts to help scientists better understand whales and other marine life. For instance, companies gather important data on annual entanglements, vessel strikes, and images of satellite-tagged whales that record various biological and whale movement information.

In the United States, all whales are protected under federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, that safeguard them from being injured, killed, harassed, or having their natural behaviors interrupted. Companies participating in Whale SENSE agree to use responsible viewing practices to minimize the potential for harming whales, to provide customers with a high standard of education, and to promote ocean stewardship and conservation.

Current whale watch partners include: American Princess Cruises in Queens, New York; Bar Harbor Whale Watch in Bar Harbor, Maine; Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center in Cape May, New Jersey; Cape May Whale Watcher in Cape May, New Jersey; Dolphin Fleet in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises in Barnstable, Massachusetts; Plymouth Whale Watch in Plymouth, Massachusetts; Provincetown Whale Watch in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Sea Salt Charters in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Shearwater Excursions in Nantucket, Massachusetts; Spirit of Cape May in Cape May, New Jersey; and Starflight Fleet in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey.

To learn more about the Whale SENSE program, please visit our website http://www.whalesense.org or call us at 978-282-8462.