NOAA Fisheries Service scientists disentangle a young North Atlantic right whale off the coast Florida.
NOAA Fisheries Service scientists disentangle a young North Atlantic right whale off the coast Florida.

Meet the Biologists Who Rescue Whales Trapped in Fishing Gear

NOAA Fisheries Service scientists disentangle a young North Atlantic right whale off the coast Florida.
NOAA Fisheries Service scientists disentangle a young North Atlantic right whale off the coast Florida.

Scott Landry and his team had been searching the waters of Cape Cod Bay for hours without any luck. For several days in September, mariners had reported to the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, that they'd seen a humpback whale trailing ropes and buoys from its enormous body. Landry, the center's director for marine animal entanglement response, knew time was growing short: Every day a whale spends entangled costs it precious energy and increases its chances of dying.

The crew had checked every reported location and was growing concerned about the fading daylight when a whale-watching boat called to say it had spotted the animal more than 20 miles away.

The five-member team sped out of the bay on their 35-foot, 600-horsepower rigid inflatable boat toward the animal's last known location. Finally spotting it, they worked to get close enough for a clear look at how the ropes and buoys were wrapped around the whale's body.

It wasn't easy. The boat bounced in the wind and rough seas. The whale moved quickly and obscurely, diving for up to seven minutes at a time. No one knew what direction the animal was moving or where it would surface. When it did come up for air, it disappeared again almost immediately. "We need a clear idea of how a whale is entangled to disentangle it properly,” Landry tells Mental Floss. “We had about two seconds when it came up for a breath."

When he finally got a look, the news wasn't good. "It was the worst kind of entanglement—a rope wrapped around its upper jaw," Landry recalls. Because a whale's head is seldom above the surface and ropes there may not trail as far, they prove hardest to remove. "The whale was moving at high speed, we were moving at high speed, and we had to pace alongside it and get within 30 feet to cut it free. The window of time and the target were both small."


A North Atlantic right whale with fishing line embedded in its jaw.
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This time of year, many humpback whales travel from feeding grounds off the coast of Canada and New England to winter calving grounds in waters around Florida and the Caribbean, a journey of more than 1000 miles. A surprising number of them are dragging materials along with them—rope, nets, and other gear in which they've become hopelessly entangled. Increased fishing in areas where whales forage has resulted in more entanglements, which can kill them.

Humpback whales reach weights of 80,000 pounds and lengths up to 60 feet. You need a good reason to approach one of these massive creatures in a small craft on the open ocean. The special teams that free the whales believe it's worth risking their lives to save these endangered cetaceans.

These teams exist all over the world. Landry's institute, the Center for Coastal Studies, has freed more than 200 large whales and other marine animals since 1984. It belongs to the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network, which includes National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries offices, state offices, and research institutions from Florida to Canada.

The U.S. had 123 confirmed entangled whale cases in 2016 alone, but the ones we see likely represent only a fraction of the total. Jamison Smith, disentanglement coordinator for NOAA, tells Mental Floss that lack of centralized record-keeping early on means no one knows the actual number, but since the early 1980s, it has hit at least the low thousands. At least 83 percent of North Atlantic right whales became entangled at least once between 1980 and 2009, and more than half of the humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine have had at least one entanglement.

"Right whales and humpbacks have a huge problem," Michael Moore, senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), tells Mental Floss. "Something radical has to happen, or these species are going to go away."

A WORLDWIDE—AND DEADLY—PROBLEM

Marine animals get caught up in just about anything humans put in the water, and we put in a lot of stuff—commercial fishing gear, recreational fishing gear, buoy warning systems, trash. "This problem plagues whales throughout the world," Amy Knowlton, research scientist at the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, tells Mental Floss. "It is one of the biggest conservation issues for marine mammals."

Whales off U.S. coasts most often get tangled in active fishing gear. On the East Coast, it's mostly snow crab and lobster gear. At the height of lobster season, close to a million vertical lines lurk in waters off Maine, and North Atlantic right whales, which are facing extinction in part due to entanglements, may encounter these lines about 2500 times a year. These plankton-grazing whales, which can reach 55 feet long and weigh 128,000 pounds, move slowly through the ocean with open mouths, so most entanglements start there, Knowlton explains. Once ensnared, the whales tend to thrash and roll, which only makes the problem worse, wrapping the ropes through their baleen and around their heads and flippers.

On the West Coast, where NOAA had 71 reports of whale entanglements in 2016, the vast majority in the past two years involved Dungeness crab fishing gear, located along the entire coast. Last year, for example, that gear was responsible for 22 out of 29 entanglements that NOAA definitively associated with specific fisheries or gear types.

Ghost nets—abandoned fishing gear drifting in the ocean—also entangle whales, as does other debris. Junk tends to be more prevalent in certain parts of the ocean, accumulating in gyres and along currents. More debris equals more entanglements.

In a 2012 paper in Conservation Biology, WHOI researcher Julie van der Hoop reported that scientists determined cause of death for 43 percent of 1762 known whale mortalities in the Northwest Atlantic between 1970 and 2009. Of those, 67 percent resulted from human interactions, and entanglement in fishing gear was the primary cause of death.

Entanglement can cause whales to drown or seriously injure and eventually kill them. If they survive, the gear can easily double the drag an animal experiences as it moves through the water. "They can't feed, and they exert a lot more energy just to swim, dragging that gear," Knowlton says. "Their health declines and, if they don't drown at the outset, they experience a slow, painful death."

Expending that extra energy can mean the difference between a female successfully reproducing or not, according to Moore, and with so few right whales remaining, reproduction is critical to survival of the species.

"The calving rate in North Atlantic right whales has been sparse, driven to some degree by lack of food but also wasteful pursuits such as swimming through the water pulling a whole bunch of excess drag," Moore says.

Even whales that free themselves or are freed by humans experience stress, pain, and loss of energy.

THIS IS HOW YOU FREE A WHALE

Aerial view of North Atlantic right whale that a team of state and federal biologists assisted in disentangling off Daytona Beach, Florida.
A team of state and federal biologists help an entangled right whale off Daytona Beach, Florida.

In order to disentangle a whale, you first have to find it. "When you consider the size of the ocean, the odds of that happening are incredibly small," Landry says. In some areas, most reports come from commercial fishing operations. The research community and the public also report whales in need of help.

Once a team reaches the whale, they have to assess the situation before taking any action. "You might think we just get in there and start cutting stuff off the whale," he continues. "But we found through trial and error that doesn't help. You have to understand how the whale is entangled and strategically cut things away. Every situation, every whale differs. Sea conditions differ. No two disentanglements are alike."

Often, the first step is for a crew member to use grappling hooks to attach buoys to the animal to help them track it and slow it down. This tactic is one of many they use that was inspired by historic whaling techniques, Smith says, but there's a key difference: "They were trying to kill the whale and we're trying to save it, which is harder to do."

Meanwhile, another crew member with a camera on a long pole assesses the situation. The team then determines the best approach and attempts to cut the whale free using specially designed knives on long poles.

"You're running on adrenaline, focused on the animal and the gear and how to best access that in a safe manner," Knowlton says. "I've spent a lot of time with right whales, and feel I have a sense of what to expect, but they always throw surprises at you. It is not a comfortable situation to be in. I really wish nobody had to be in it."

Keeping crews safe remains priority one. Whales are large, powerful animals. Entanglement creates stress and—despite a popular misconception that whales understand our motives—they have no idea we are trying to help them, Landry says. "Their response is a fear response. Most deal with it by trying to flee, but others will try to defend themselves."

Even so, only one person has died while disentangling a whale under current protocols. Joe Howlett, a long-time member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team in Canada, was killed July 10, 2017, off New Brunswick by a just-freed right whale, which may have breached or flipped.

Network members plan a response based on the animal's distance from shore, weather, time of day, and availability of resources such as boats and crew. "The biggest challenge is trying to keep a consistent crew on call day in and day out, year after year," Landry says.

The success rate varies. "If we can get our hands on the whale, figuratively, we have about an 85 percent chance of disentangling a humpback," Landry says. "A 50 to 60 percent chance on a right whale."

Knowlton points out that 25 percent of all entangled animals reported just disappear: "A lot more we see multiple times, but weather and other challenges mean we can't get out there. In short, disentanglement is not the solution."

Eliminating whale entanglement entirely would require keeping all rope and debris out of the ocean—not a likely scenario. But lawmakers and scientists are working on solutions. Seasonal restrictions on fishing and modification of gear could help.

Rope strength plays a role, according to Knowlton. Strength of ropes used by commercial fishing has increased, and with it, the severity of whale injuries. Using rope that breaks at 1700 pounds—more than strong enough for the majority of fishing needs but something a whale likely could break—could reduce probability of mortality by 72 percent.

Developing gear that doesn't use ropes could make an even bigger difference. This has been done in parts of the world, and oceanographic researchers routinely retrieve gear using GPS and tracking technology and not ropes. "With economies of scale, that could be conceivable for fisheries," Moore says. "The argument that you need a plastic float on the surface to know where a trap is set is a little antiquated given the technology we have now." Ropeless methods could even help fishermen, because they lose gear to whale entanglements.

As for the whale Landry's team pursued in September, after an hour of near misses, the team was able to finally get close enough to cut the rope free with a hook-shaped knife on the end of a 30-foot pole. As they always do, they removed the rope and buoys from the water. (The National Marine Fisheries Service archives all removed gear for continued study, with the ultimate aim of better understanding and, ultimately, preventing entanglement.)

Had the tourist boat not happened upon the whale, it almost certainly would have died.

"That's one of our biggest fears," Landry says. "It was just a tiny chance for someone to see that whale before it left the area entirely and went somewhere we would never find it." It's happened before, he notes. "You win some and lose some. It's a big responsibility. On the bright side, more often than not, we're able to get the job done."

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NOAA Fisheries Service scientists disentangle a young North Atlantic right whale off the coast Florida.
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Animals
14 Bold Facts About Bald Eagles
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Bald eagles are powerful symbols of America—but there’s a whole lot more to these quirky birds.

1. YOUNG BALD EAGLES AREN'T BALD.

A young bald eagle with a brown head on a beach.
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So obviously adult bald eagles aren't really bald, either—their heads have bright white plumage that contrasts with their dark body feathers, giving them a "bald" look. But young bald eagles have mostly brown heads. In fact, for the first four or five years of their lives, they move through a complicated series of different plumage patterns; in their second year, for instance, they have white bellies.

2. BALD EAGLES SOUND SO SILLY THAT HOLLYWOOD DUBS OVER THEIR VOICES.

A red-tailed hawk.
A red-tailed hawk's screech is usually dubbed over the bald eagle's weaker scream.
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It's a scene you’ve probably seen countless times in movies and on TV: an eagle flies overhead and emits a rough, piercing scream. It's a classic symbol of wilderness and adventure. The only problem? Bald eagles don't make that sound.

Instead, they emit a sort of high-pitched giggle or a weak scream. These noises are so unimpressive that Hollywood sound editors often dub over bald eagle calls with far more impressive sounds: the piercing, earthy screams of a smaller bird, the red-tailed hawk. If you were a fan of The Colbert Report, you might remember the show's iconic CGI eagle from the opener—it, too, is making that red-tailed hawk cry. Listen for yourself and decide who sounds more impressive.

3. THEY EAT TRASH AND STOLEN FOOD.

Two bald eagles guard their prey against two magpies on a snowy field.
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Picture a majestic bald eagle swooping low over a lake and catching a fish in its powerful claws. Yes, bald eagles eat a lot of fish—but they don't always catch it themselves. They've perfected the art of stealing fish from other birds such as ospreys, chasing them down until they drop their prey.

Bald eagles will also snack on gulls, ducks, rabbits, crabs, amphibians, and more. They'll scavenge in dumpsters, feed on waste from fish processing plants, and even gorge on carrion (dead, decaying animals).

4. BALD EAGLES USUALLY MATE FOR LIFE.

Two bald eagles perched on a tree.
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Trash and carrion aside, they're pretty romantic animals. Bald eagles tend to pair up for life, and they share parenting duties: the male and the female take turns incubating the eggs, and they both feed their young.

5. … AND THEY LIVE PRETTY LONG LIVES.

Two bald eagles sitting on a rock.
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Those romantic partnerships are even more impressive because bald eagles can survive for decades. In 2015, a wild eagle in Henrietta, New York, died at the record age of 38. Considering that these birds pair up at 4 or 5 years of age, that's a lot of Valentine's Days.

6. THEY HOLD THE RECORD FOR THE LARGEST BIRD'S NEST.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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Bald eagles build enormous nests high in the treetops. The male and female work on the nest together, and this quality time helps them cement their lifelong bond. Their cozy nurseries consist of a framework of sticks lined with softer stuff such as grass and feathers. If the nest serves them well during the breeding season, they'll keep using it year after year. And, like all homeowners, they can't resist the thought of renovating and adding to their abode. Every year, they'll spruce it up with a whopping foot or two of new material.

On average, bald eagle nests are 2-4 feet deep and 4-5 feet wide. But one pair of eagles near St. Petersburg, Florida, earned the Guinness World Record for largest bird’s nest: 20 feet deep and 9.5 feet wide. The nest weighed over two tons.

7. FEMALES ARE LARGER THAN MALES.

Two bald eagles in their large nest.
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In many animal species, males are (on average) larger than females. Male gorillas, for example, dwarf their female counterparts. But for most birds of prey, it's the opposite. Male bald eagles weight about 25 percent less than females.

Scientists aren't sure why there's such a size difference. One reason might be the way they divide up their nesting duties. Females take the lead in arranging the nesting material, so being bigger might help them take charge. Also, they spend longer incubating the eggs than males, so their size could intimidate would-be egg thieves.

If you're trying to tell male and female eagles apart, this size difference may help you—especially since both sexes have the same plumage patterns.

8. TO IDENTIFY THEM, LOOK AT THE WINGS.

A bald eagle flies across the water.
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People often get excited about a big soaring bird and yell "It's an eagle!” just before it swoops closer and … oops, it's a vulture. Here's a handy identification tip. Bald eagles usually soar with their wings almost flat. On the other hand, the turkey vulture—another dark, soaring bird—holds its wings up in a shallow V shape called a dihedral. A lot of large hawks also soar with slightly raised wings.

9. THEY'RE COMEBACK KIDS.

Baby eagle chicks in a nest.
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Before European settlers arrived, bald eagles were abundant across the U.S. But with settlement came habitat destruction, and the settlers viewed the eagles as competition for game and as a threat to livestock. So many eagles were killed that in 1940 Congress passed an act to protect the birds.

Unfortunately, another threat rose up at about that time. Starting after World War II, farmers and public health officials used an insecticide called DDT. The chemical worked well to eradicate mosquitos and agricultural pests—but as it traveled up the food chain, it began to heavily affect birds of prey. DDT made eagle eggshells too thin and caused the eggs to break. A 1963 survey found just 471 bald eagle pairs in the lower 48 states.

DDT was banned in the early 1970s, and conservationists began to breed bald eagles in captivity and reintroduce them in places across America. Luckily, this species made a spectacular recovery. Now the lower 48 states boast over 9700 nesting pairs.

10. THEY'RE UNIQUELY NORTH AMERICAN.

An African fish eagle flies over the water.
The African fish eagle is a relative of the North American bald eagle.
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You've probably heard of America's other eagle: the golden eagle. This bird lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. But the bald eagle is only found in North America. It lives across much of Canada and the U.S., as well as northern parts of Mexico.

Though it may be North American, the bald eagle has seven close relatives that are found throughout the world. They all belong to the genus Haliaeetus, which comes—pretty unimaginatively—from the Latin words for "sea" and "eagle." One relative, the African fish eagle, is a powerful symbol in its own right. It represents several countries; for example, it's the national symbol of Zambia, and graces the South Sudanese, Malawian, and Namibian coats of arms.

11. THEY'RE AERIAL DAREDEVILS.

A bald eagle carries a fish off in its talons.
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It seems too weird to be true: While flying, bald eagles sometimes grab each other's feet and spin while plummeting to the Earth. Scientists aren't sure why they do this—perhaps it's a courtship ritual or a territorial battle. Usually, the pair will separate before hitting the ground (as seen in this remarkable set of photographs). But sometimes they hold tight and don't let go. These two male bald eagles locked talons and hit the ground with their feet still connected. One subsequently escaped and the other was treated for talon wounds.

12. THEIR EYES ARE AMAZING.

Close-up of a bald eagle's face.
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What if you could close your eyes and still see? Besides the usual pair of eyelids, bald eagles have a see-through eyelid called a nictitating membrane. They can close this membrane to protect their eyes while their main eyelids remain open. The membrane also helps moisten and clean their eyes.

Eagles also have sharper vision than people, and their field of vision is wider. Plus, they can see ultraviolet light. Both of those things mean the expression "eagle eye" is spot-on.

13. THEY MIGRATE … SORT OF.

A bald eagle sits in a snowy tree.
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If you're a bald eagle that nests in northern Canada, you'll probably head south for the winter to avoid the punishing cold. Many eagles fly south for the winter and return north for the summer—as do plenty of other bird species (and retired Canadians). But not all bald eagles migrate. Some of them, including individuals in New England and Canada's Maritime provinces, stick around all year. Whether or not a bird migrates depends on how old it is and how much food is available.

14. THEY CAN SWIM … SORT OF.

A bald eagle
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There are several videos online—like the one above—that show a bald eagle swimming in the sea, rowing itself to shore with its huge wings. Eagles have hollow bones and fluffy down, so they can float pretty well. But why swim instead of soar? Sometimes, an eagle will swoop down and grab an especially weighty fish, then paddle it to shore to eat.

Note that the announcer in the video above says that the eagle's talons are "locked" on a fish that's too heavy to carry. In fact, those lockable talons are an urban legend.

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NOAA Fisheries Service scientists disentangle a young North Atlantic right whale off the coast Florida.
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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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