From left to right, Payton Tobin, Rita Burnham and Jill Burnham stand by fishing gear removed from a whale on June 22.-Photo by Deborah Boege-Tobin

From left to right, Payton Tobin, Rita Burnham and Jill Burnham stand by fishing gear removed from a whale on June 22.-Photo by Deborah Boege-Tobin

Humpback whale freed from mooring line

A volunteer trained in disentangling whales and a National Oceanic and Atmoshpheric Administration law enforcement officer freed a juvenile humpback whale last week after it got tangled up in line and a buoy. It took about three hours for Josh Tobin, the volunteer, and Kasey Mayhew, the officer, to free the whale from about 600 feet of line and a 4-foot diameter buoy.

Tobin said he and Mayhew responded in the NOAA patrol boat about 10 a.m. last Wednesday, June 22, after several mariners reported seeing a whale tangled up with line and a big white buoy near Gull Island. At first all they saw was the buoy.

“It didn’t really appear to be attached to the whale,” Tobin said. “We started pulling the line in, and when it got within 75 to 100 feet of the boat, we realized there was a whale attached to it.”

Tobin estimated the humpback whale was about 40 feet long, longer than the 28-foot boat. Tobin didn’t know the sex of the whale, but for clarity referred to it as a male. The whale appeared exhausted, but could swim, dive and come up for air. The line had gotten wrapped around the whale’s pectoral fin and mouth, Tobin said. Like unreeling rope from a spool, Tobin said he and Mayhew got the whale to roll away from them as they pulled in the rope. Eventually they were able to cut the line within 5 feet of the whale.

“He wasn’t in great shape. He was super tired. We were able to manipulate him,” Tobin said. “We were both pulling the line and moving the boat so we could get him to roll, and he did.”

However, the line still remained tangled in the whale’s mouth, in the baleen plates humpback whales use to catch small fish. The two men struggled to get the line out of the whale’s mouth. The whale didn’t seem afraid of Tobin and Mayhew and the boat.

“Eventually he took a run away from us and it pulled straight through his mouth,” Tobin said. “We could see he was completely free.”

Julie Speegle, a NOAA spokesperson, said the whale had gotten tangled in pot gear line that someone in Kachemak Bay had used to set up an elaborate mooring system. Because it was unintentional, no one will be given a penalty for tangling the whale. The owner of the gear reported it missing after returning to their cabin last Thursday.

Humpback whales are a federally protected marine mammal species. Commercial fishermen are required by law to report marine mammals that get tangled in nets. Reports can be made to 877-925-7773 or the Alaska SeaLife Center’s marine mammal stranding network at 888-774-7325. The enforcement hotline is 800-853-1964.

Tobin said disentangling the whale was made more difficult because of mariners in boats getting too close to them and spooking the whale. Broadcasting over marine radio, Mayhew asked people to clear the radio, but Tobin said not everyone complied.

After getting free, the whale swam away and was seen diving and surfacing. Tobin said the whale had raw wounds from rope burns, but otherwise appeared uninjured.

Tobin took training about 5 years ago for how to deal with whales tangled in fishing gear, nets and rope. The main point of the training is to avoid someone going into the water with the whale. He and Mayhew did not go into the water, but they got sprayed with water from the whale’s plume as it spouted.

“Getting covered in whale spit is pretty awesome. It smells fantastic,” Tobin said, joking. “It’s a big, big animal. This is the closest I’ve ever been to a living humpback.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

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