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A Right Whale Returns to Cape Cod Bay Four Years After  Disentanglement

By Lisa Sette 

Just before noon on February 12, 2015, the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) aerial team sighted  right whale “Chiminea (NEAq #4040)” inside Cape Cod Bay feeding just below the surface within a group of right whales.   Although it is not unusual to see right whales in Cape Cod Bay this time of year, the gift is that Chiminea is a right whale that had not been observed in the Bay since April 2011 when CCS disentangled the whale.

Entanglement is a major issue in the conservation of North Atlantic right whales. Research indicates that approximately 83% of the right whale population has been entangled at least once at some point in their lives (Knowlton et al, 2012).  With around <500 whales in the population, freeing one whale can be important.  

Back in April of 2011, the CCS entanglement response team received a late afternoon hotline call from the CCS aerial survey team.  They had spotted an entangled right whale about two miles off Pamet Harbor – just a few miles from where the team docks vessel R/V Ibis. Luckily there were several hours of daylight left and the aerial survey team was able to stand by while the entanglement response team headed out.

Once the team was on scene, they began to document and assess Chiminea who was feeding just below the surface with several other right whales. The entanglement consisted of one, long length of white rope that went through the whale’s mouth and exited both sides. This rope ran alongside the whale and trailed to about 50 feet behind the flukes.

After assessment, the team used a grapple to attach a control line with a buoy from the bow of R/V Ibis.  A control line is a rope attached to the entangling rope to help mark a whale as it dives. After the control line was added, the whale changed behavior, swimming steadily to the northwest and traveling at or near the surface.  With the help of the aerial survey team, R/V Ibis kept up with the entangled whale as the team prepared an inflatable boat, aboard which the team would work to disentangle the whale.  

The inflatable was launched and the team grabbed hold of the control line and pulled its way up to just behind the flukes of Chiminea.  Using a 30 foot pole with a specially designed knife attached to the end the team cut one of the lengths of rope exiting the mouth. The team then added more buoys to the remaining length of line. With the drag of these buoys and of the inflatable, the remaining length of rope eventually slipped from the mouth of the whale.

Once free of the entangling rope, Chiminea started to swim rapidly to the north as the sun began to set. With daylight quickly disappearing, both teams worked hard to keep up with the whale and take photos that confirmed Chiminea was completely free of rope. 

Prior to this day Chiminea had only been seen on a handful of occasions and nothing is known of its genealogy. The whale was first recorded off Florida in the winter of 2010, and the last known sighting of the whale, prior to being discovered entangled, was in the spring of 2010 off Cape Cod.  A small sample of skin found by the team within the entangling rope may help the right whale research community learn more about this enigmatic whale.

As more right whales return to Cape Cod Bay this spring, we’ll be looking out for them, especially the ones we know like Chiminea.

WDC is grateful to our guest bloggers and value their contributions to whale conservation. The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of, and should not be attributed to, WDC.