Divers Trying To Save Drowning Whale Are Blindsided By Its Unexpected Response

Although we’ve developed all sorts of ways to converse with animals, we still have our fair share of miscommunications. Yes, even when we think we understand their intentions, animals might surprise us!

So when a man saw a whale surface near the Farallon Islands off the coast of California, he was absolutely positive that the creature was trying to tell him that something was wrong. But when he got closer, he witnessed a sight he’d never forget.

In December 2005, Mick Menigoz, a boat captain and organizer of whale watching tours in California, learned of a humpback whale in a serious predicament. He loved whales and wanted to help. The question was: what could he do about it?

Mick Menigoz / Facebook

Mick knew that he was going to need some backup. He already had his boat, Superfish, at the ready, as well as his own crew of divers to assist. But his rag-tag team couldn’t do it alone. So he reached out to the experts at the Marine Mammal Center…

The Marine Mammal Center was a nonprofit organization based in Sausalito, California. Because its staff had more than four decades rescuing marine mammals, Mick knew he was at the right place!

The Marine Mammal Center / Facebook

The Marine Mammal Center’s goal was to release hurt animals back into the ocean. While the majority of its patients were sea lions and seals, it saved over 20,000 marine mammals—including whales. In other words, these were just the people that Mick needed.

The Marine Mammal Center / Facebook

With the team of volunteers in place, everyone set off for the Farallon Islands. Located near the coast of San Francisco, California, this was where crabbers had last spotted the troubled whale. Would they be too late?

Once there, the team saw what they were dealing with: a 50-foot humpback whale floating near the surface. Evidently, she had been taking what should have been a normal migratory route from Baja California to the coastline of northern California…

Something clearly wasn’t right, though. Ordinarily, a marine mammal like this would only remain at the surface for a moment to catch her breath. Lead diver James Moskito (pictured) and the rest of the rescuers knew that this whale was in trouble.

Apparently, the whale had become caught in something known as “blue steel,” an incredibly strong rope used by fishermen. In this case, crabbers had used it to attach traps to buoys at the bottom of the ocean. For the whale, however, it was quite deadly.

The roughly 250-foot-long ropes were used to hold massive crab traps on the ocean floor, and they were taking a toll on the humpback whale. She’d become so tangled up in the “blue steel” that she’d lost almost all mobility!

MMHSRP PERMIT 18786 / WILLIS

For his part, James felt a connection to the imperiled mammal right away. In fact, he noticed that whenever the animal peeked above the surface of the water, she appeared to be asking for help. “I remember it like it was just a few minutes ago,” he said.

Somehow, the poor humpback whale knew help was on the way. “The whale came up on a breath, came up, put its eye above the surface, looked at me–I could tell it was looking at me–and just stayed there,” James recalled.

As the divers closed in, they were able to see just how much pain the whale must have been in. The ropes had already torn off sizable bits of blubber, and the more she struggled, the worse her predicament became.

There was little time left to help the whale survive the fight for her life, so James and a few crew members dove as deep as they could to see what could be done beneath the surface. That was when they realized the situation was even more dire than they thought.

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“I was the first diver in the water, and my heart sank when I saw all the lines wrapped around it,” James remembered as he described the scene underwater. “I really didn’t think we were going to be able to save it.”

Not only did the divers notice the rope twisting around her tail, but a line was running through the whale’s mouth. Worse, she was constantly pulled down by the weight of a 3,000-pound anchor beneath her. All she could do was try to keep her blowhole above the surface.

Still, gentle as she was, the divers had to be careful. Even a strong flick of the creature’s tail could have done some serious damage! Yet, for as dangerous and stressful as the task was, compassion was the key to the team’s success…

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What followed were five arduous hours of attempting to rescue this whale. All the while, she remained remarkably calm. Finally, after so much delicate and hard work, she was free! Yet, the most remarkable thing was yet to come…

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“Next I know, I have this whale coming right up at me… it was like a slow-moving bus,” James said. “It literally stopped six inches away from my chest, and then nudged me forward, like your household dog does when he wants to be pet.”

Clearly, the whale knew exactly what she was doing. “It turned on its side and put its eye right next to me,” James continued. “I started petting her again, so it was definitely a feeling of affection.” But James isn’t the only amateur whale-rescuer out there.

Michael Fishbach is extremely passionate about wildlife photography. And so to feed this passion of his, he takes a trip with his friends and family every year to focus on photographing various whale species in their natural habitat.

@GreatWhaleConservancy / Instagram

In fact, whales are also one of Michaels passions. He even co-founded the Great Whale Conservancy, which is an organization that focuses on spreading awareness and advocating to protect these marine creatures.

One Valentine’s Day he was on a trip, on the Sea of Cortez, when he noticed an animal floating alongside his boat at the surface of the water.

Upon further investigation, Michael and crew realized that the animal was a humpback whale and she wasn’t showing signs of life.

Suddenly the whale exhaled loudly through its blowhole. The sound indicated to them that the whale was in grave danger and needed help immediately.

Michael grabbed his snorkel and cautiously jumped into the water as seen below. When he swam up to the humpback whale, he saw that the creature was completely entangled in gillnet, restricting the use of her fins.

Great Whale Conservancy / YouTube

Her pectoral fins were tied to the side of her body and her dorsal fin was entangled. Her tail was even trapped in so much gear that it was weighing her down a full 15 feet under the surface!

Michael recalled making eye contact with the whale and thinking, “The sight of this large and beautiful creature trapped and so close to death was almost overwhelming.”

He was able to successfully remove the netting from the dorsal fin but felt it was too dangerous to continue helping the distressed whale. He only had a small knife and there was too much material to remove.

Michael swam back to the boat to radio for help. He was told that
“perhaps” in an hour someone would be able to reach them, but the news sounded bleak.

Great Whale Conservancy

Michael knew that the whale might not make it if they waited for reinforcements to arrive. He looked to his crew and everyone knew what had to be done.

Great Whale Conservancy / Facebook

As quickly, and safely as possible, the crew began hauling and cutting the net systematically. They were careful, knowing the whale needed to have the ability to breathe in order to survive the rescue.

Great Whale Conservancy

The crew was able to release one pectoral fin, which gave the whale a sense of freedom. But then she began to pull away and swim off with the net still attached to it.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The crew held on tight as the whale pulled them about a half mile through the Sea of Cortez. Finally, the whale grew tired and the crew quickly began to work again.

Sea Shepherd

They knew if they couldn’t free her tail then their efforts would be useless. The crew didn’t give up as they continually hauled and cut the gillnet as the whale’s tail twisted and turned.

Great Whale Conservancy

They struggled with hauling and cutting the remaining net until finally, the tail was free! It was no longer weighted down with all of that fishing net.

The crew was overjoyed with their success as they cheered and embraced one another. Together they watched the whale swim free.

The whale swam about 500 feet from the boat when suddenly, she breached high into the air and out of the water. The crew knew she was using this display to express how thankful she really was.

Great Whale Conservancy

They then decided to name her Valentina, since it was Valentine’s Day. The show went on for about an hour as the grateful whale stayed close to the surface and by its rescuers.

A young child aboard said, “Mommy, I know what she’s doing. She’s showing us that she is all free.” Everyone who saw the whale that day would definitely agree. Michael Fishbach and his team were over the moon to have rescued Valentina that day, but sadly this wasn’t the first time this happened…

Great Whale Conservancy

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