Ocean He­roes

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

Coastal Living - - CONTENTS - BY SU­SAN CASEY

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

Ed Ly­man

Ly­man with the de­bris caught on a whale, at the Hawai­ian Is­lands Hump­back Whale Na­tional Marine Sanc­tu­ary

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