A team of scientists from the Center for Coastal Studies was researching humpback whales off the coast of Massachusetts on Saturday when they made an unsettling discovery: A humpback was drifting near the surface, so badly entangled in a rope that it could not swim.
The rope was lodged in its mouth and wrapped multiple times around its tail, preventing it from swimming or using its tail for defense. The whale was effectively "hogtied," according to a statement from CCS, which is based in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
To make matters worse, a 15-foot-long great white shark was circling the humpback — and it had taken a few bites out of the vulnerable whale.
By the time the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the CCS arrived to help free the whale on Stellwagen Bank, it had suffered a "relatively large wound" on its left flank.
Because the great white was still circling the whale when the rescue team arrived, rescuers worked from aboard the 35-foot-long response boat Ibis to cut the rope from the whale's mouth. No longer hogtied, the humpback could swim again — but the rest of the rope was still tangled around its tail.
Once the shark swam away, the rescue crew jumped into a small rubber dinghy and tied a work line to the rope around the whale's tail. As the whale towed the dinghy behind it, the rescuers used a special hook-shaped knife at the end of a long pole to cut away the rest of the entanglement.
Finally freed from the rope, the humpback whale "sped off" out to sea.
The Marine Animal Entanglement Response team has freed more than 200 large whales and other marine animals — including dolphins, porpoises and sea turtles — since 1984, according to its website.
Boaters off Massachusetts are urged to report any entanglement sightings of whales, sea-turtles and other marine animals to the Marine Animal Entanglement Response Hotline (1-800-900-3622) or the U.S. Coast Guard, and to stay by the animal at a safe distance until trained responders arrive, according to the CCS site.