It was looking pretty grim Wednesday for the gray whale floating listlessly in the shallow waters of Dana Point Harbor.
Experts said the whale looked emaciated and old, and some observers worried that the roughly 35-foot, 30-ton creature's days were numbered.
But as news choppers churned overhead and a growing number of spectators watched from shore, the distressed whale's fortunes appeared to change.
It took about four hours for a team of marine animal rescue workers to remove the mesh rope knotted around the whale's head and tail, said Tim Sullivan of the Ocean Institute in Dana Point.
Rescue workers freed the whale from a snarl of fishing nets, and it swam back into the Pacific. The whale was docile and calm throughout the rescue operation, rescuers said.
It was a happy ending to a tense, two-day episode that involved some of the nation's top marine biologists and drew hundreds of spectators to the shore. And it was first time in more than a decade that a whale has been successfully freed from nets in Southern California.
The whale was first spotted in the harbor Monday, appearing lethargic and possibly elderly and sick.
Upon closer inspection, marine biologists discovered that it was caught in fishing nets and other gear, but they were unsure whether the nets were what was ailing the whale.
A crew trained in disentangling marine animals from nets arrived at the harbor Wednesday. The team, with members from Sea World in San Diego, the Ocean Institute and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, had never tried to rescue a whale.
Barry Curtis, who was on one of the boats, said he caressed the animal and spoke soothingly to it as other workers used a long pole with a sickle-shaped blade to remove the nets. Curtis said the whale appeared young, not old as marine biologists had first thought.
As the ropes were cut away, the whale began breathing more easily and was able to swim more strongly. It started moving toward the mouth of the bay as the last rope was cut away and soon disappeared into the ocean.
Marine biologists hope the whale will finish its migration to Alaska or the Arctic, where 10,000 gray whales converge each summer to feed.
Eric Otjen of SeaWorld said he was moved by the experience.
"To be able to see her swim away," Otjen said, "that was pretty cool."
Times staff photographer Mark Boster contributed to this report.