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Lily, a 30-foot long gray whale is set free from entanglement in Dana Point Harbor

At around 2:30 p.m. on Monday, May 10, deputies watched from an Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol boat as a whale turned and swam out to sea toward Capo Beach after attempting to enter the Dana Point Harbor for the second time that day.

The boat was stationed near the mouth of the harbor in an effort to prevent a whale that was first seen swimming inside the jetty in the morning.

According to Deputy Belair, Harbor Patrol first spotted the 30-foot long whale at around 8:45 a.m. about a quarter to a half-mile deep inside the harbor. Harbor Patrol coaxed the whale out and watched as “he” swam around the west jetty out to sea.

“We got a call at about 12:30 p.m. saying that he was back,” said Belair. “The Ocean Institute had a boat out and tentatively identified him as an older gray whale, he had a lot of growth on him and that he was pretty thin for his size.”

When deputies responded to the second call, they observed the same whale trying to swim back into the harbor and responded by observing the whale from their boat and moving slowly back and forth at the harbor mouth, to encourage him from swimming back inside.

“We saw the whale slowly making his way back toward the harbor. We don’t know what prompted him to turn around, but he turned around and seemed to be leisurely surfacing and swimming back out towards the open ocean, going eastbound towards Capo Beach and San Mateo Point,” said Deputy Ivec. “We will definitely be keeping our eyes open to see if he returns. If we don’t see him, I’m sure someone else will and will let us know about it.”

Dan Sforza of the California Department of Fish and Game was also on hand observing the whale.

“Whales are a federally managed species, so NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is actually the agency that oversees the species’ regulations. The main thing we are here to do is to support the Sheriff’s Department and help them if any issues arise, but like the deputies said, he moved along on his own,” said Sforza.

As word got out about the whale, a handful of curious onlookers arrived on jet skis to try and catch a glimpse. Sforza had these cautionary words regarding the public keeping a distance while observing whales. “The law states that it is illegal to harass marine mammals and the guidelines NOAA uses is to stay at least 100 yards away,” said Sforza. “Anyone observed harassing a marine mammal is subject to citations and fines.”

On Tuesday “he” was first spotted early in the morning around 7:30 a.m. making his way toward the Embarcadero Marina launch ramps and startling a few early morning stand up paddlers in the process.

The whale’s early morning route took him in through the harbor mouth, past the Dana Wharf Whale Watching boats and within 20 feet of the launch ramp. Along this route he stopped and lingered at the fueling station, swam past diners at the Jolly Roger Restaurant patio and right in front of the jet ski and kayak rentals before turning around and heading back out toward sea.

Tracey Ann Engleking was paddling in the harbor when the whale came close enough to her that she could see what looked to her like yellow line or rope wrapped around the animal near its tail. She continued to observe the whale for a time, from a longer distance upon finding out about the 100-yard rule. At the same time, rope was also observed—by this reporter—trailing behind the animal as it swam past the Catalina Express vessel as it was being readied for the day’s trip to the island. The boat captain graciously allowed me to climb aboard for a better vantage point. The view from the bow afforded a clear view from above as the whale moved slowly past and back toward the harbor mouth.

“It was the most staggeringly awe inspiring moment that I’ve ever had in the water,” said Engelking. “I’ve never been that close to anything like that before.”

On his way out he lingered around the bait barge for a time then made his way out around the jetty and headed toward the beach at Doheny. The whale then spent several hours just floating around, breaching, spouting and lingering in the rocky shallows referred to by surfers as “the boneyard.”

By this time, the stray whale had attracted the attention of hundreds of onlookers. Television news reporters were stationed with their cameramen along the jetty as news helicopters hovered overhead.

Upon hearing the reports of civilian observations of possible entanglement on the whale’s tail fluke, authorities alerted NOAA’s (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Whale Entanglement Team (WET) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that there appeared to be rope entangling the whale near the tail fluke and left pectoral fin.

Dean Gomersall, an Animal Care Supervisor from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, was among the observers watching from the jetty as the whale lingered at Doheny Beach. Gomersall was aware of reports of rope entanglement on the whale and was looking to make the official visual confirmation of entanglement—necessary to enlist the help of SeaWorld in removing it. Gomersall found visual confirmation to be difficult because the whale had not shown its tail fluke above water at any time on Monday or Tuesday. At one point, the whale did come up very close to the jetty allowing Gomersall to get a visual on some line or rope trailing behind the whale, SeaWorld was called in and a team was assembled to carry out a plan to help the whale the following morning.

“We have a plan in place to try to remove the entanglement but it really is unknown whether removing it will have any effect on saving this animal,” said Gomersall, late Tuesday afternoon. “It very well may be that the whale is nearing the natural end of its life. He does appear to be thin and unhealthy. Who knows, maybe the rope’s removal will allow the whale to swim more freely, feed and return to health. We just don’t know for sure, but we’ll definitely be giving it a try.”

At that time, due to his very thin body and listless demeanor, marine biologists still believed the whale to be elderly and ailing. Other signs that the whale may be elderly include the heavy encrustation of barnacles, whale lice and algae typical of older whales. The heavy algae growth may also signify that the whale has spent too much time in warm water.

Most gray whales are well on their way to the Arctic waters of Northern Alaska by now. This one may have been left behind, unable to make the long 5,000-mile journey, according to marine biologists. The annual gray whale migration—from calving lagoons in Baja, Mexico to cold-water feeding grounds in the north—sees the animals pass by Dana Point from mid-February through the end of April. It is rare to see a straggler this late in the season unless it’s a lost calf separated from its mother or a senior member of a pod, ready to pass away.

As of 3 p.m. on Tuesday, the whale was still swimming outside of the harbor at Doheny Beach near the rock jetty.

The “disentanglement team,” including Gomersall, Eric Otjen of the Mammal Department at SeaWorld and Dana Point’s own Dave Anderson of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari boarded a small Zodiac boat and carefully worked on freeing the whale from its entanglements as it floated docilely in the water just off of Baby Beach near the Ocean Institute. With cutting instruments on long poles, the team worked for more than two hours cutting away appproximately 100 pounds of gill netting, line, nylon rope and other fishing equipment. The team found the whale to be more tangled in the mess than first believed. They removed line from the whale’s mouth in addition to the left pectoral fin and tail.

A few other unexpected discoveries about the whale were made by biologists during the rescue—he is actually a “she” and believed to be a juvenile. The heavy encrustation is believed to be due to her slow speed caused by the impediment of the entanglement.

Biologists watched as the whale, now cut free, seemed to pick up speed and head out back toward the open water. The crowds of spectators clapped and cheered as the whale, dubbed Lily—Get it? Free Lily—appeared to be headed north to catch up to her pod well on their way toward their cold-water feeding grounds.

Engleking, the stand up paddler who shared a moment with Lily on Tuesday was back at the harbor with her 10-year-old son to watch, said, “I’m keeping her in my prayers and hoping she makes it North. Maybe she’ll swim by for a visit next year.”

Unfortunately, all the hopes and prayers of Lily’s new group of human friends and well-wishers may not be enough to save her. The sound of helicopters over Dana Point Harbor on Thursday morning alerted me to the possibility that Lily had again returned. A quick call to Deputy Martin at Harbor Patrol confirmed that, in fact Lily has not headed north.

“We received reports that the whale was seen in the waters off Doheny Beach at about 8:00 a.m. this morning,” said Martin.

Ocean Institute whale specialist Mike Bursk headed out with a whale watching expedition at about 7:30 a.m. and said that as they passed by, it appeared to him that the whale was not really going anywhere on her own but simply going with the current.

As of noon, according to Bursk, Anderson reported that the whale was outside the surfline at Capo Beach and seemed to be breathing well, although still not paddling very actively.

To read more of the story click here and here.

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