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Gray whale cut free from fishing nets in Dana Point Harbor

May 12, 2010 |  4:10 pm

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A distressed gray whale that had been tangled in a thick snarl of fishing nets at Dana Point Harbor for two days was cut free Wednesday afternoon and has returned to the Pacific Ocean.

It took about four hours for a team of marine animal rescue workers to remove the rope that had knotted around the whale’s head and tail, said Tim Sullivan of the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. As the ropes were cut away, the whale began breathing more easily and was able to swim. 

The 35- to 40-foot-long whale, estimated to weigh about 30 tons, was first spotted in the harbor Monday. It appeared lethargic and unable to swim, and marine biologists at first suspected it was elderly or sick.

Upon closer inspection, they found that it was tangled in nets, but they were unsure whether the nets were causing the distress.

A crew trained in detangling marine animals from nets arrived at the scene Wednesday morning. The team, made up of animal rescue workers from Sea World, the Ocean Institute of Dana Point and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, had never before tried to rescue a whale. It has been more than a decade since anyone in Southern California successfully freed a whale from nets, Sullivan said.

Rescue workers floated out in the bay in two inflatable skiffs. Barry Curtis, who was on one of the boats, said he caressed the whale and spoke soothingly to it as other workers used a long pole with a sickle-shaped cutting blade on the end to untangle the whale. He said the whale appeared young, not old, as marine biologists had first suspected.

The whale began swimming toward the mouth of the bay just as the last rope was cut away, and soon disappeared into the ocean.

“To be able to see her swim away," said Eric Otjen of SeaWorld, “that was pretty cool.”

-- Kate Linthicum

Photo: From left; Dave Anderson and Eric Otjen try to pull Dean Gomersall from the Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach back onto the boat after Gomersall fell overboard while the three were trying to untangle a gill net and rope lines from the body of a young gray whale that swam into Dana Point Harbor. Credit:  Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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