More than 300,000 whales and dolphins die each year from being entangled in marine debris. Maui’s Ed Lyman cuts them loose, one daring mission at a time
Whale rescuer Ed Lyman
I HAVE MET MANY majestic creatures in the ocean—great white sharks the size of cars, manta rays like giant kites, gangs of curious dolphins, a barracuda that had to be seven feet long—but nothing inspires more awe than a humpback whale. An adult humpback can be 45 feet long and weigh more than 40 tons; to watch one glide by is to watch an alien spaceship loom into view. In the azure waters around Maui, where I live, about 12,000 humpbacks arrive each winter to calve, nurse, and breed, making the 2,500-mile trek down from Alaska, fleeing the cold like mainland tourists. On any given day between December and April, these whales can be seen spouting and breaching and tail slapping and simply cruising around. Which is why Ed Lyman, a man whose career is largely devoted to humpbacks, calls Maui home, too.
Lyman’s job is unusual; his title, a bit of a mouthful: He is the large whale entanglement response coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. What this means, in essence, is that along with monitoring the health of seasonally resident whales, Lyman also rescues them. Each year, a number of humpbacks arrive in Hawai‘i entangled in marine debris: fishing lines, nets, buoys, ropes, mooring
lines, anchor chains, and, in one instance, 850 feet of steel communication cable. This gear gets snagged in the whales’ deep mouths and wraps around their fins and tails; it cuts into their bodies as it drags along, causing stress, pain, and infection, and making it hard for them to swim, dive, feed, nurse, or mate. In many cases, if not removed, it will result in the animal’s death. Since 2003, Lyman and his colleagues have freed 27 whales in Hawai‘i (26 humpbacks and one sei whale). They have also made rescues in Alaska, New England, Canada, Mexico, and the South Pacific. “Entanglement is pervasive,” Lyman says. “It’s a threat that’s global. It’s everywhere.”
Sadly, this is certainly true. According to figures from the International Whaling Commission, some 308,000 of the world’s whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglement each year. These numbers are staggering, and worse—as fishing equipment becomes more durable and pervasive—they’re rising.
I meet Lyman one day down at Maui’s Mā‘alaea Harbor, where his team’s 36foot ridge-hulled inflatable boat is docked. He’s an outdoorsy, midsize guy in his mid- 50s with a deep tan and kind eyes, friendly and understated and even a little bit shy. His whale work began 25 years ago in New England, he tells me. In graduate school, Lyman had studied island biogeography, how animals evolve in isolated communities. (Specifically, he was examining the differences between island and mainland populations of muskrats: “Darwin had his finches; I had my muskrats.”) A job at the nonprofit Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, introduced him to the problems that can arise when whales meet ocean debris. As it happens, New England waters contain plenty. “It’s an epicenter of whale entanglement,” Lyman says. “There’s a lot of lobster gear. There are places where it’s hard to get in and out of a harbor—it’s that thick.”
The region is also a feeding ground for North Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species with only about 100 breeding females left. During the ’90s, Lyman’s group received government funding to disentangle right whales wherever they were sighted. “They were flying us up and down the coast,” he says. “A whale would get reported in Florida, and we’d jump on a plane, or go down there with the Coast Guard.” Lyman also worked closely with fishermen, spending weeks on their boats, analyzing how they deployed their gear, and creating more whale-friendly methods and designs: “It was totally unglamorous, but highly useful,” he says.
Though it may sound simple in theory, disentangling a whale is a dangerous and complicated business. It’s an art and a science, requiring teamwork, precision, and expertise in everything from humpback anatomy to weather conditions to boat handling. There are specialized tools and techniques to be mastered, things like maneuvering a flying knife on the end of a 30-foot pole while moving at five knots through 2foot seas. The endeavor poses big risks; things can go wrong fast. The rescuers can get caught in the lines and pulled down as the whale dives. A whack from a fin or a fluke can be fatal. The whale itself can be further injured. But Lyman’s personality is ideal for this work: He’s both meticulous and daring.
During Hawai‘i’s most recent humpback season (winter 2017 through spring 2018), Lyman received 80 distressed marine animal reports, resulting in 21 rescue efforts and five freed whales. The calls come to the Whale Sanctuary from tour boats, fishermen, whale researchers, Coast Guard patrol vessels—someone who’s spotted the animal. Lyman vets the calls, and figures out how to proceed: “Initially, we assess it. Is it truly entangled? Is it life threatening? Is it safe to respond? Can we help the whale? If we decide a response is warranted, I send out a group text message, we get the roles filled, and we’re running to the boat.”
Lyman’s response team typically consists of seven people and two boats— the larger support boat and a smaller, inflatable approach boat—but he also relies on a network of responders, observers, and concerned bystanders built by outreach over the years. “The amount of support we get from the tourism industry—they’re great,” he says. “It amazes me just how involved they are in our effort.” When an entangled whale
is sighted, Lyman asks the boat that found it to remain on the scene. “We need to find the animal first,” he says. “Otherwise the whale ends up being a very large needle in an even larger haystack.”
Once he arrives at the location, Lyman’s next step is to get a clear look at exactly how the whale is entangled. Describing this, he reaches into a cupboard and pulls out a plastic toy humpback, wrapped in a snarl of string. “This is actually a tool,” he says, showing me how he replicates a real-life entanglement on the model to figure out where to cut. In some cases, a single wellplaced cut might be all it takes to free a whale from multiple lines.
Lyman’s real tool kit includes many blades, customized for specific tasks. There are curved knives, double-edge knives, folding safety knives, flying knives, knives with shallow serrations that work well on tough materials like gillnet—a knife for every occasion: “We do have quite the arsenal,” he says. Before any knives come out, however, more preparation is required. Depending on circumstances, Lyman might hook a grapple onto the entanglement, or motor up to the whale in a smaller inflatable and grab onto a trailing line to position himself. He might add a buoy or two to whatever debris the animal is dragging, so it will slow down and stay on the surface. “So you get your Nantucket sleigh ride,” Lyman says. “You’re being towed behind the whale.” This technique, known as “kegging,” was used by 19thcentury whalers. The big difference, of course, is that here it’s put into practice to save whales. If the sun’s going down or the weather’s kicking up, he’ll affix a transmitter to the remaining entangled gear so he can relocate the whale the next day.
All of this advance work might take hours or even days; the cut itself might take only seconds. Not every mission is successful, but plenty of them are, and each time a whale is relieved of its burden, Lyman says, there’s a deep feeling of satisfaction: “You think, ‘Wow! I just freed a 40-ton animal.’ And now, that whale has a chance of surviving.”
For more information and to support Lyman’s work, visit marinesanctuary.org and hawaii humpbackwhale.noaa.gov.
Ed Lyman and crew freeing a humpback whale in accordance with NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program
Lyman with the debris caught on a whale, at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary