Q&A with Humpback Whale Rescuer Ed Lyman

Published May 02, 2014

In advance of his special lecture at the Aquarium on May 7th, we chatted with Ed Lyman about his work as a humpback whale disentanglement expert and the important role marine-protected areas play in the preservation of this species.

ed lyman

How did you get your start with the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network? 

I was asked by David Mattila, who was the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuaryʻs research and rescue coordinator and one of the pioneers in large whale disentanglement, to assist in setting up a large whale disentanglement response program in Hawaii.  David and I had worked together doing similar work at a non-profit research organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts called Center for Coastal Studies.

Because of our experience, and the resources and experience of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, we took on the role of managing the Network, which works under and very closely with NOAA Fisheriesʻ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.  I continue to coordinate the Network in Hawaii under the National Marine Sanctuary Program, while David went on to focus on the broader, global issue of entanglement threat.

Walk us through the process of large whale entanglement response.

In the broadest sense it starts with awareness and outreach, since even a whale ends up being a very large needle in and even larger haystack – the world’s oceans.  If we are to mount any kind of response, we need to find the animals first. Second, trying to free a 40-ton, 45-foot, likely free-swimming animal in the open ocean is not easy and can be quite dangerous for animal and humans alike.  We essentially perform a risk assessment, and get authorization to proceed from NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, who are responsible for overseeing such efforts in the US.

As far as actually freeing the animal, they don’t necessarily know we are there to help. We need to control them a bit and gain access to the entanglement by gaining access to the animal. To do this we borrowed and adapted a technique that whalers from the 1800s used, who also wanted to gain access to the animals.  The technique involved throwing harpoons, not necessarily to kill the animal, but to attach to it. The whaler would then attach barrels or kegs to the other end of the line, which added drag and buoyancy, serving the purpose of slowing the whale down and keeping it at the surface.

noaa whale rescue

Image courtesy of NOAAʻs Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and taken under NOAA Fisheriesʻ MMHSRP (permit #s 932-1489 or 932-1905).

Instead of harpoons we throw grapples or use hooks on the end of long poles to attach to the trailing gear and thereby gain access to the animal.  Instead of barrels, we keg the entangled whale with large plastic buoys. We add more gear in order to get the gear off. Once the whale has slowed, we use the same lines we have attached to pull up to the animal while onboard a small inflatable boat, and with hooked knives on the end of long poles, cut the animal free of all the gear.

Lastly, and most importantly, we collect the gear, so we can investigate what it was, where it came from, how the animal may have gotten entangled, and any other information we can glean as to reduce the threat for other animals in the future.

Tell us about one experience that was especially challenging in recent years? How did you and your team overcome it? 

Two years ago we got a report of a humpback whale calf entangled in gear. It had a tight wrap of line around its body forward of its flippers with nothing trailing. We had nothing to get a hold of to gain access to the animal. The entanglement was life threatening since the calf was essentially growing around the wrap of gear (they can drink 100 lbs of milk per day and grow rapidly). Our hooked knives, which were sharp only on the inside, were not going to gain access to the embedded line.  In addition, a protective mother and male escort (which by the way, was not the father) accompanied the calf, making it difficult to approach.

We made several attempts to free the calf, but in the end we were not successful.  I know we have to set emotions aside when doing this type of work, and while a humpback calf is 15 feet long and weigh up to a ton, it still is a “baby” whale.  We can only hope that the animal was able to free itself.

This year we had another humpback calf, again with mother and escort, reported entangled exactly the same way – a tight wrap, forward and well embedded in the calf’s body, with nothing trailing.  However, having learned from our past experiences, we were better prepared by having designed and fabricated a multi-edged knife, and by using the behaviors of mother and calf to our advantage.  Mother humpback whales like to rest (it takes a great deal of energy giving birth and nursing a 1 ton baby, even for a humpback whale mother) and they sometimes do so at depth.

The calves, however, cannot hold their breath as long and come up to breathe typically every 3 to 5 minutes, circling above mom before heading back down. While onboard the sanctuary’s response vessel, we positioned ourselves to be able to reach out with the new knife on the end of a 25-foot carbon-fiber pole and cut the wrap when the calf surfaced.  On the third try we were successful and the calf was free of all gear. Over the ensuing month, the calf was re-sighted by various tour boats in good health.

If the attendees of next week’s lecture could take away one thing about humpback whales and marine sanctuaries, what would you want it to be? 

Humpback whales are charismatic mega-fauna that are icons of our oceans and symbols of its health.  Our national marine sanctuaries are marine protected areas that are special places. They both are icons and symbols of our oceans’ health, and sanctuaries are a means to help maintain the health of our marine ecosystems.  We need to protect and support them both, and thereby continue to appreciate the greater marine ecosystem they represent.

How can the general public support the important work the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network is doing?

Obviously if you are in Hawaii and see an entangled whale we ask people to call a regional 24/7 Hotline, which is (888) 256-9840, to report an entanglement.  If at a safe and legal distance, take pictures and/or video to help us access the entanglement and its impact.  If a response is to be mounted, we do ask people to stay with the animal and monitor it until an authorized and trained response team arrives.  We emphasize for folks to not take matters in their own hands, especially by getting into the water.  It’s not just a matter of being illegal, but more importantly, it’s too dangerous, and typically doesn’t result in getting all the lethal gear off the animal.

The general public can all also contribute towards keeping our oceans clean.  Whales can get entangled in just about anything in the water column.  It is not always fishing gear.  We need to watch what we put in our oceans or what could find its way into our oceans.

Lastly, the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network does appreciate financial support.  While operated by and under state and federal agencies, government funding is decreasing each year.  We find ourselves reaching out to the general public more and more to make ends meet.  You can directly support our work through the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

To learn more about this fascinating issue, be sure to join us for Ed's special lecture on May 7th! 

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