The Truth About Whale Rescues

Want to watch more whale-rescue videos? Donate today to the Monterey Bay-based Whale Entanglement Team.

by Doug Ross
You may have seen the viral video of a guy in a Speedo cutting net from a young humpback whale in the Sea of Cortez. It’s great to see such a fine animal freed from the confinement and suffering these unfortunate interactions with fishing gear cause. But the video is misleading, because jumping into the water with a knife is not the best way to get that job done safely. (You can watch the video at the bottom of this post.)

You may not know (because we have not yet created any viral videos), but here in the U.S. we have highly trained teams of rescuers along both coasts, equipped and ready to roll when reports of entangled whales occur. One such team, based out of Moss Landing, is led by Pieter Folkens and Peggy Stap. We have a cool name (Whale Entanglement Team, or WET), cool equipment, cool people and a cool response area in central and northern California.

As a member of the team, I have been out on a number of successful rescues (yes, we have more than one; dozens in fact). The whales did not know we were trying to help them. They don’t stick around to thank us after we free them. These were frightened whales, and who can blame them?

We have videos of our own, which show a group of dedicated, unpaid volunteers working their butts off to cut fishing gear off whales. We don’t jump in the water in Speedos with a pocket knife for dramatic effect. We are careful and deliberate. We use carbon fiber poles, custom designed blades and grappling hooks, satellite telemetry devices, GoPros, helmets, and a few small boats.

What we really need is a bigger support boat. With a larger boat, the team has a longer range. We’ll be able to respond more quickly because we can store our rescue equipment on board, instead of in a trailer parked in the harbor. The result would be more whales saved.

I am writing this because right now Peggy has found the boat she needs, and it’s for sale. It is an Albin 40 North Sea Cutter, located up in Washington state. We are raising the rest of the money needed to buy it and get it outfitted for the upcoming season, when entanglements are most common. We have a dollar-for-dollar matching fund program that will cover half of the cost, so anything you can give will be doubled.

If you love that viral video of the guy in a Speedo, if it makes you feel good to see that whale freed, then think about giving to our group so that we can continue this important work, here in the U.S., safely and legally.

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In addition to volunteering with the Whale Entanglement Team, Doug Ross is a supervisor of special rescue operations for the The Marine Mammal Center. He is also an artist whose work includes marine-life themes, and a freelance illustrator for corporations and publications such as Forbes magazine and The New York Times.

If you see a whale in trouble, do NOT do what this guy does. Call 1 (877) 767-9425 -- (877) SOS-WHALE