Humpback Whale Protection

Rescue at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary

On Christmas Day 2009, several tour vessels off Maui noticed a juvenile humpback whale with a nasty wound near its tail. The animal was believed to have been hit by a vessel. David Mattila and Ed Lyman of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were called to document, and if possible, assist the animal. On getting a closer look, rescuers realized the animal was not a victim of a strike, but of another major threat to these mammals: entanglement. The young whale had several wraps of line deeply embedded around its tail with an anchor hanging below it and several hundred feet of line trailing – a life-threatening situation. The rescue effort immediately changed to one of disentanglement. Luckily, Mattila, Lyman and the sanctuary's response team are among a small, elite group of individuals specially trained to rescue entangled large whales.

Disentangling large whales is no easy task and can be extremely dangerous if not done correctly. In 2003, a New Zealand man, who was a proficient diver, donned his gear and attempted to cut free an entangled humpback whale; he was killed when the whale's fluke came down on him. "These animals don't always realize that you are there to help," noted Lyman. "They are not always the gentle giants we make them out to be."

"One wrong move can result in serious injuries – or worse," Mattila added.

Instead of getting in the water, the team uses an inflatable boat to approach the animal and throw a grapple into the trailing gear to secure it. Once attached, they actually add more gear, such as plastic buoys to slow the whale down and keep it at the surface. The procedure is a modification of an old whaling technique called "kegging," in which whalers harpooned the animal and attached wooden barrels to the trailing line for the similar purpose of slowing the whale down and keeping it at the surface. Of course, in today's version, we are trying to save the whale, not kill it.
Conservation & Education
An endangered species, approximately 10,000 to 12,000 humpback whales migrate each winter from Alaskan waters to Hawaii to breed and bear their young. Full-grown humpbacks are about 45 feet long and weigh up to 70,000 pounds. Despite their impressive size, speeding boats and marine debris, including lost or abandoned fishing lines and nets, pose significant risk to humpbacks.

Some whales survive months entangled in gear; humpbacks in Hawaii have been found trailing fishing lines from Alaskan waters 2,500 miles away. But over time, the lines can cut into the flesh, causing wounds, infection and loss of limbs. Estimates suggest that 300,000 whales and dolphins worldwide fall victim to entanglement each year.

Congress designated Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in 1992 to ensure the protection of humpback whales and their habitat in Hawaii through education, outreach, research and resource protection. NOAA and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources jointly manage the sanctuary.

Current research projects focus on the impact of entanglements, vessel collisions and other human activities affecting humpback whales and their habitat. Sanctuary scientists regularly collaborate with a variety of local, national and international partners to better understand the scope and impact of threats to humpback whales throughout their range. Sanctuary personnel conduct on-water assessment of reports of humpbacks in distress and, when conditions and resources permit, attempt to free whales from potentially life-threatening entanglements. The response efforts provide valuable information that may mitigate these threats in the future.



A Happy Holiday
After several hours, Mattila and Lyman, with assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA Fisheries, were able to pull up right behind the animal, reach forward with a hooked knife on the end of a pole and make several cuts, freeing it. Despite rescuing more than 70 whales between the two of them, Mattila and Lyman realize that the answer lies not in trying to cut every animal free, an impossible task. Rather, the researchers focus on garnering information from the rescue efforts to learn how to reduce the threat of entanglement for these large mammals. That said, it was gratifying to free the animal, which still appeared to be in good condition, and watch it swim away – literally into the sunset.
How You Can Help the Humpbacks
  • Avoid vessel-whale collisions. Federal regulations prohibit approaching any humpback whale closer than 100 yards. The regulations apply to all ocean users, including divers, snorkelers, swimmers, vessel operators, kayakers and paddle boarders, throughout the Hawaiian Islands. An understanding of typical humpback whale surfacing behavior can also help boaters avoid collisions and close approaches. Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement host statewide boater workshops to help vessel operators stay safe and operate within the law during humpback whale season.

  • Ocean users play a very valuable role in monitoring efforts. If you should come across a humpback whale entangled, struck by a vessel or otherwise in distress, please call NOAA's Hotline at (888) 256-9840.

  • Get involved in a variety of volunteer opportunities on the islands of Hawaii, Kauai, Maui and Oahu.

  • Reduce and prevent marine debris, one of the most widespread pollution problems facing oceans and waterways, by participating in local cleanups and minimizing the amount of waste you produce. Reuse and recycles items such as bottles, cans, cell phones and ink cartridges whenever possible. Choose reusable items over disposable ones.


This video was filmed under permit; it is illegal for divers to approach whales within 100 yards without proper documentation.
National Marine Sanctuaries
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is only one special place that can be found within the National Marine Sanctuary System. The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as trustee for a system that includes 13 national marine sanctuaries and one marine national monument encompassing more than 150,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes waters. The mission is to preserve these places through scientific research, exploration and education.

Today, perhaps as never before, the National Marine Sanctuary System provides more than just protection of special marine areas; these special places provide opportunities to address many of the critical problems of our time, such as climate change and adaption, sustainable economies and national security. Marine sanctuaries help build communities, encouraging Americans to find common ground and reach collective solutions of nationwide significance.
For More Information
National Marine Sanctuaries
Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
NOAA Marine Debris Program
Support the Sanctuary's Rescue Efforts
Helmetcam videos of humpback rescues
Ocean Futures