Her rescuers weren't sure that she would make it by the time they cut all the rope off.
It was 8:30 AM on a Sunday when crab fishermen noticed that something a bit larger than their usual catch was stuck in the ropes meant to hold crab pots together. When they approached the area, they immediately saw that a huge humpback whale was deeply entrenched in the weighted ropes, which were near the Farallon Islands, just 18 miles off of San Francisco’s coast.
They contacted Mick Menigoz, who organizes whale watching and shark diving trips, who alerted the Marine Mammal Center and then got a group of volunteers together to head out to save the whale. They weren’t able to reach the whale until 2:30, at which point they realized they would only be able to save the 50-foot whale if they jumped in and cut each rope off.
Shelbi Stoudt, the Marine Mammal Center’s standing manager at the time, said that the endeavor was risky because one flick of the whale’s tail could kill a human, but the risk was worth it. A few volunteers geared up and jumped right in.
“I was the first diver in the water, and my heart sank when I saw all the lines wrapped around it,” said James Moskito, one of the volunteers who works with Great White Adventures, a cage-diving outfit that works with Menigoz. “I really didn’t think we were going to be able to save it.”
They estimated that the whale weighed about 50 tons, and saw that her mouth also had line in it; though whales don’t eat anything close to the size of humans, reaching into her mouth was still dangerous. Since the ropes each had weights all along the hundreds of feet of line, with 90 pound crab pots at the bottom, the whale was struggling to keep her blow-hole above the surface of the water so she wouldn’t drown.
Upon closer inspection, the weight of the ropes also seemed to be cutting into her blubber, as deep as 2 to 3 inches, so she must have been in pain as well. The rescuers knew they had to work fast. Despite the panic that the whale must have been feeling after hours of struggling to survive, she was surprisingly still when her rescuers worked to cut off the ropes with curved knives.
“When I was cutting the line going through the mouth, its eye was there winking at me, watching me,” Moskito said. “It was an epic moment of my life.”
Whales have been said to have very soulful eyes, and their sheer level of intelligence was likely showing through during this humpback’s time of need. Once all of the ropes had been cut, which took about 5 hours total for the whole rescue, the whale started to swim around and test her regained freedom. She then swam to each diver and nuzzled them all, showing them how thankful she was for their help.
“It literally stopped 6 inches away from my chest and then nudged me forward, like your household dog does when he wants to be petted,” Moskito said. “I never felt threatened. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience.”
For the most part, whales stray away from human attention unless they’re “putting on a show” for nearby passengers of a boat, so while it’s awesome that these rescuers were able to catch a glimpse of a whale showing what seemed to be affection, don’t expect any whale you happen to come across to be as friendly. Though it’s unlikely that they would hurt you purposefully, not every one is willing to graze by you, making what this humpback did even more special.
Watch the video below to hear Moskito’s take on the amazing experience.