Whale of a Rescue

Through the window of a hilltop home in Pacifica, California, Mick Menigoz, 48, gazed across the blue-gray ocean to the Farallon Islands, 30 miles to the west. On this mid-December Sunday morning, Menigoz, the skipper of a charter fishing and whale-watching boat, planned to take it easy. That changed when he got an unusual distress call from a crab fisherman, far out at sea. A humpback whale was thrashing helplessly in the frigid Pacific waters between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Farallons. The 100,000 pound mammal had gotten entangled in the thick nylon ropes of commercial crab traps. It appeared to be fighting for its life. The crab boat captain, knowing Menigoz’ background as a diver and whale lover, figured he might be able to help.

Menigoz alerted the Marine Mammal Center of Sausalito, the only local agency permitted to approach a whale. He volunteered to carry their rescue team out to the site in his boat. Then, he set about putting together a team of professional divers, to assist in any way they could.

Professional divemaster James Moskito, still boyish looking at 40, spent about as much time in and on the water as he did on land. After seven years of teaching Scuba, he now worked with a dive operation that attracted people from around the world who wanted to get close to the ocean’s most fearsome killing machines: the great white sharks of the Farallon Islands. Moskito, as their tour guide, led divers in steel cages, right into the great whites’ habitat. But this Sunday, he and his girlfriend, Holly Drouillard planned something far mellower: a trip to his parents’ house. Before hitting the freeway, Moskito checked his voice mail, and heard the message from Menigoz about the trapped whale. When Moskito returned the call, Menigoz filled in the details. “I’m in,” said Moskito.

Lean, athletic Tim Young, 47, had spent 22 years of his 26-year military career in the Air Force equivalent of the Navy Seals. Until he retired in 2003, the soft-spoken pararescue specialist traveled the world to perform some of the most dangerous rescues ever attempted. Suited up for Scuba and armed with paramedical gear, Young had parachuted out of countless helicopters and C-130 airplanes to come to the aid of both military personnel and civilians who couldn’t be reached by other means. The summons from Menigoz that interrupted his family’s Sunday breakfast, however, was unusual even for someone with Young’s daredevil career. Without hesitation, he packed up his gear.

Three more calls brought two more highly experienced divers — Jason Russey and Ted Vivian — and boat captain Geary Barnes. At the Coast Guard station, they met up with the Marine Mammal Center’s veterinarian, Frances Gulland, and two of the center’s volunteers who were trained in marine mammal rescue. With the center’s inflatable hitched to the back of Menigoz’s weathered working boat, the 56-foot Superfish, they set their course to the coordinates Menigoz had been given.

At about 1:30 pm, they were close to the location the crab fisherman had reported. Menigoz turned over the wheel to Barnes and told everyone to scan the horizon for the animal. Pointing straight ahead, Jason Russey called out, “There it is.” About a quarter mile ahead and almost exactly where the GPS had last placed it, the entrapped humpback blew a spout from its blowhole. To Menigoz’s eye, it appeared to list to one side.

The whale was not swimming, not even drifting with the current. Yet only four buoys surrounded her, each tied by nylon ropes that descended perhaps 250 feet down to the ocean floor to 90 pound metal and mesh crab traps. For a whale that size, thought Moskito, the weight shouldn’t be enough to anchor her in place. Joining the center’s vet and volunteers in the inflatable, Moskito and Young went to investigate. A surreal scene greeted them as they motored closer. A sea lion leapt out of the water, literally jumping over the whale. Moskito took it as a good sign. The sea lion probably wouldn’t stick around if sharks swam nearby. All that they could see from the surface was its blowhole and the top of its head immediately surrounding it — an area about the size of a large dining room table.

Like so much scattered popcorn, small chunks of white blubber, gouged from its body by the ropes, floated all around and clouded the water. Moskito and Young, in snorkel gear, fell over backwards into the 53 degree water and cautiously snorkeled nearer. But from the surface, it was like trying to peer through the head of a beer. They could barely distinguish the animal’s front from her back. Out of the depths, a huge flipper — the whale’s left pectoral fin — rose up just about a yard away from Moskito. It looked to be eight or nine feet long. Cautiously, they did a free dive below the surface. Thick nylon crab trap ropes, called blue steel because of their strength, wound around the pectoral fin, up into and through her mouth and over her head. Where the ropes had sliced most deeply, they disappeared into her flesh; all that was visible were the gashes.

Returning to the inflatable, Young and Moskito donned Scuba gear so they could drop down deeper. As Young kicked his fins underwater, one of the crab trap ropes caught the sheath on his leg, snatching away the larger of his two dive knives. A glint of steel disappeared into the gloom. Swimming downward, they saw that the tail was wrapped with about 20 ropes which, in turn, connected to at least a dozen 90 lb. crap traps. The traps weighed heavily on what they could now see was a female whale, about 50 feet long. Her tail pointed almost straight down to the ocean floor, at a ninety degree angle to her upper body. She had to be using every ounce of her strength to keep her blowhole above water. The ropes wound upward from the tail and around the flipper again, essentially hog-tying her. Crab trap buoys bobbed all around.

Moskito’s heart sank. No way are we going to save this whale, he thought to himself. Still, they had to try. Returning momentarily to the surface, the divers mapped out a game plan. “Let’s start with the one we can get off for sure,” said Moskito to Young, indicating the left pectoral fin. They would each saw at one of the two ropes holding it, then back away quickly, mindful that a slap from that massive flipper could kill a man. When they began cutting, something remarkable happened. The whale, who had been slowly moving her enormous pectoral, suddenly stopped moving. All together. Somehow, the huge beast seemed to understand they were there to help. Even after they cut her flipper free, she remained calm and cooperative.

Both men swam back to the inflatable to consult with the center’s crew. Moskito told them that the whale seemed to know what was going on. “We’ve got to do this. Let me go cut the tail.” The Marine Mammal Center couldn’t officially approve it but, authorization or not, Moskito and Young decided to keep going. The center’s team took the inflatable back to the big boat, about 100 feet away, to get more supplies, Young followed the ropes to the whale’s mouth. Moskito dropped down to tackle the spaghetti tangle around her tail.

The feel of the whale’s skin, as soft as a wet chamois, surprised Young. Patches of barnacles and other crustaceans had attached themselves to her body in places; he could see scars from earlier injuries. Lines ran through the whale’s mouth almost like a gag, then carved into her blubber around and over her head to a depth of up to two inches. He severed the ropes then tugged with all his strength to remove the pieces, almost as if he were pulling on giant dental floss. This had to be painful for the whale, he realized, but amazingly, she remained calm. He was acutely aware of the danger of getting entangled himself. If the humpback, trying to escape the pain, should dive, she could drag him along — and he might never come up again. His fins resting lightly against her flipper for leverage, he floated eye-to-eye with the leviathan. In utter stillness, with that eye as large as a human fist, the whale watched Young as he worked at saving her. Maybe it was his imagination but he thought he sensed gratitude in that gaze.

At the tail, Moskito sliced through ropes as quickly as he could. The weight of the crab traps pulled her tail downward as ropes fell away. But the whale, still behaving more cooperatively than he could have dreamed, she eased her tail back up each time and stayed still. Working at a rapid clip, he came down to the last few and most problematic of the ropes. These were embedded deeply into her blubber. Aware of the danger, he nevertheless knew there was no choice but to stick his knife between the whale’s raw flesh and the line and saw away. “I’m almost there,” he mumbled through his Scuba’s breathing apparatus, hoping the whale somehow could understand him. “Just two more ropes. I’ll be done and you’ll be free.” He cut the last one and watched the buoy attached to it spiral into the depths.

While Moskito and Young worked below, the Marine Mammal Center’s crew picked up Jason Russey and Ted Vivian in the inflatable and returned to the whale. The two men dropped into the water in snorkel gear. Although the first two divers had cut the lines loose from the crab traps, long pieces remained embedded beneath the humpback’s skin. Vivian and Russey worked at these near her mouth. Instead of teeth, humpbacks have a thick bristle hair, called a baleen, that hangs from the gum and serves as a food filtration system. Rope had gouged its way into the baleen. Russey gripped her lower lip and reached right inside, to tug away pieces that could impede her from eating. She gently opened and closed her mouth but even with this intimate contact, she mostly remained still.

Moskito emerged from the depths and shouted out a celebratory, “Whoo- hoo.” She was free. The other three men in the water surfaced and joined in the hooting and hollering. They all watched as the whale did a shallow dive. Moskito turned around, asking, “Where’d it go? Where’d it go? Where’d it go?”

The next thing he knew, she came straight at him from under the water. Hey, I just saved you, he thought, fear rising as fast as the massive beast that sped into his path. Then, the humpback came to a complete stop, about a foot from his chest. She nudged him a bit with her nose then stopped again. Her eye looked up at him from the water. As she swam past, she brushed against him, almost like a dog wanting to be petted. The whale then circled around the divers, sometimes gently grazing them with her body as she made her way to each of the four men.

They had been swimming with the whale for about ten minutes when Moskito yelled to the others, “Hey, there’s one more rope coming out of the mouth.” It was about a foot long. He grabbed hold of it as the humpback swam in circles and spoke to her as she pulled him along, trying to tell her she would be okay. She began to dive and he went down with her for about 15 feet, then let go and surfaced. He’d wait for her to return. When she did, he again took hold of the rope, sawing it as close to her mouth as he could. At that moment, finally free of all the ropes, the humpback hummed so deeply Moskito’s whole chest seemed to vibrate. She stayed and frolicked a few moments more then widened her circle and seemed ready to swim off. The divers decided it was time to leave her. It wouldn’t be safe for her to get too comfortable around humans.

Marine Mammal Center veterinarian Frances Gulland, ever the scientist, says that, in her opinion the whale swam with the men because her body was so kinked from being tied up by the ropes, she could only swim in circles; the divers just happened to be in her way. But the men in the water insist they weren’t in her way. She made a beeline for each of them. Even if Gulland were right though, it doesn’t explain why the whale allowed Young to work on her, eye-to-eye, without moving a muscle. And it doesn’t explain why she nuzzled Moskito. As James Moskito later said, “It was the most fantastic moment of my life.” Tim Young agrees. “Out of the 26 years I spent in the military doing high-risk and other rescues,” says Young, “there’s been more nothing more gratifying than this rescue. Nothing.”

 

 

A different version of this story was published in Reader's Digest.