Article published in on December 19, 2005

“Scuba Divers Rescue Humpback Whale”

By Regina Washington (co-authored by Dino M. Zaffina)

A distressed 50-ton humpback whale was spotted six miles off the Farallon Islands, a chain of rocky islands about 30 miles west of San Francisco, at approximately 8:30 a.m., Sunday, December 11, 2005.  The whale was first seen by fisherman, Ryan Tom of Emeryville.  Tom noticed that the humpback whale was entangled in crab fishing lines.  “It was just laying there on the surface, all lethargic,” said Tom.  “I didn’t even notice it was caught until we got up close and you could see all the buoys wrapped around its head.”

Thinking quickly, Tom began to make telephone calls to men and women who would soon become all part of the rescue team.  One of the calls was made to Shelbi Stoudt, division manager of The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.  Stoudt said, “The Center occasionally receives calls about whales getting tangled in fishing gear, but the animals usually free themselves and move on before they’re located.”

Mick Menigoz, 48, a Novato fishing boat captain and whale-watching tour guide headed the rescue mission. “It’s a pretty small fishing community and people know me as the whale guy,” said Menigoz. Menigoz was assisted by six scuba divers and three staffers from the Marine Mammal Center.   The rescue team located the entangled whale six hours later at approximately 2:30 p.m.

We try to avoid at all cost people going into the water with the whales because they are so big and scared and flopping around,” said Stoudt. “But we came to the conclusion that we needed to have people available if we had to go in, and these individuals were all experienced master divers.”

The mammal was heavily entwined in the crab fishing gear, with up to a dozen traps wrapped around its tail, pectoral fins, and mouth,” according to diver Jason Russey.

Russey said, “Two divers snorkeled near the whale’s head and a pair of scuba divers submerged below the mammal. The scuba guys below were able to make a few cuts with knives, and once we got the line tension relieved on the ends, we were soon able to lift them up and off the whale.   The whale was freed a little over an hour after the rescue team arrived.”

This was as close as you could possibly get,” said Russey. “I’ll never forget it.”  “When that last line was removed from the tail, the animal didn’t leave,” he said. “Amid all the whooping and hollering from the divers, the whale started doing dives and we all just stuck around and watched it hang out with us.”  Russey said, “We left the whale – the whale didn’t leave us.”


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