Rescuers searching for Sitka humpback whale snagged in netting

Posted: Friday, August 10, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A three-day search of Sitka Sound failed to turn up a humpback whale that had reportedly become entangled in a heavy net, marine fisheries officials said.

Further search efforts were suspended Thursday and fisheries officials instead will rely on tour boats to keep eyes peeled for the distressed whale.

''Our best bet at this point is to try to rely on any reports from the public who may see something and see if we can get a resighting,'' said Kaja Brix, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.

The whale was first spotted Tuesday by a man piloting a sailboat in Sitka Sound who followed it for several hours, Brix said. The whale was traveling with two other whales and trailing a heavy green netting estimated to be up to 40 feet long, fisheries officials said.

The stricken whale appeared to be protected by another whale, leading fisheries officials to believe it was a calf, Brix said.

Eyewitness reports suggested the net was tangled over the whale's head and possibly its baleen, which would make feeding difficult or impossible.

A rescue attempt had been planned for Thursday that included officials with the National Park Service and a researcher with the Alaska Whale Foundation, but it was called off after a 5 1/2-hour search failed to locate the whale.

''We're not sure if it's in the clear or not,'' said Bill McNally, of the marine fisheries Sitka office who conducted the search. ''Right now it's a standdown.''

McNally estimated he covered an area spanning 15 miles by five miles before suspending the search. Eight whales were located, but none appeared to be fouled in a net, he said.

McNally had not ruled out the possibility that the whale freed itself.

Brix said her office receives several reports annually of whales being snarled in netting and usually they aren't life-threatening to the marine mammals.

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