On July 11th, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources reported that a 20-foot whale shark had been spotted tangled in a discarded fishing line. On July 29th, a husband, wife, and a friend who were snorkeling managed to free it. “Initial reports of the entangled whale shark were received on Sunday off Olowalu,” the DNLR reported. “On Thursday, several commercial snorkel/dive tour companies reported the shark on the backside of Molokini, off Maui’s south shore.”
The fishing line was wrapped just below the whale shark’s head, and it appeared to have been there for weeks. Kapua Kawelo, who is a biologist, her husband Joby Rohrer, an Army biologist, and their friend Jonathan Sprague, a wildlife control manager, were snorkeling off the coast of Kuanolu, Lanai, when they spotted the animal in need of a helping hand. Although they were aware that the authorities don’t recommend doing what they did, they felt they had a responsibility. “We know that people don’t necessarily encourage this type of thing, but both of us are biologists,” Kawelo told KHNL. “We felt like we were sort of in tune with what the animal was doing and maybe we were meant to be there.”
The whale shark was in about 30 feet of water when Rohrer decided to swim down to it. Armed with a dive knife, he made a series of dives, cutting the thick line a little bit each time. “He made five free dives on the animal over the course of about 45 minutes,” Sprague told CNN. “Once he got it cut, I was able to get the right side of the rope off the shark’s fin, and he pulled off the rest. It was awesome.”
According to reports, the whale shark didn’t appear to be alarmed by Rohrer or Sprague, and “swam calmly through the disentanglement process as the divers removed the heavy rope.” Afterwards, it swam off into deeper water.
The fishing line was a braided rope, about five inches thick and weighing between 150 and 200 pounds. As it turned out, they may well have saved the whale shark’s life. “Based on photographs provided by ProDivers,” DNLR explained, “the entanglement represents a tight wrap around the whale shark’s body forward of its pectoral fins. The wrap is cutting into the animal, which is somewhat emaciated. Fisheries experts believe the entanglement to be life-threatening.”
Although this case turned out to have a happy ending, the Department of Land and Natural Resources is warning others that it’s not a good idea. “People should not try disentangling whales or other marine mammals on their own,” they wrote on Facebook. “Only responders trained in large whale entanglement response under NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program may attempt to remove derelict fishing gear.”