NOAA 2001-069
Contact: Teri Frady

Team Preps for Whale Rescue
Endangered Right Whale Still Within Reach of Medical Help

Veterinarians and whale experts at the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are part of a team preparing an at-sea attempt to remove a potentially lethal, tightly-cinched piece of heavy line from the mouth and head of an endangered North Atlantic right whale off Cape Cod, Mass.

"If the line is not removed, this whale will eventually die," says Dr. Teri Rowles, of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, who heads the nation's marine mammal health and stranding response program and is the managing vet for the operation. "We are planning to attempt this rescue simply because losing even one reproductively active member of this rare and endangered species population is a factor in survival of the species," she said. Team experts agree that any procedure will be stressful for the whale and dangerous for the people who are trying to help.

The effort is the first mission of its kind involving a mature right whale, using a sedative and specially constructed blades for cutting the line. NOAA fisheries is the federal agency that oversees marine mammals in the nation's waters.

Others on the team include disentanglement experts from the Center for Coastal Studies, a Provincetown-based marine conservation organization that specializes in large whale recovery, and various researchers and field specialists from the New England Aquarium. Logistical support will also involve the U.S. Coast Guard, NOAA's Atlantic Marine Center, and the state of Massachusetts.

Biologists believe that the whale is probably following concentrations of food. They recently attached a satellite tracking device, which is providing information on the whale's position. The plan is to locate the whale; restrain it using sedatives, buoys and/or harnesses; cut the heavy line; remove it if possible or rig the free ends with buoys that will cause enough drag to help the whale free the line from its body. And finally, the team will attempt to take biological samples and reattach the tracking device. The attempt will be made when the location of the whale and weather permit.