Rescuers try to untangle a net from around the fluke of a California gray… (Dolphinsafari.com )
A California gray whale found tangled in a fishing net off the Orange County coast swam free after a lengthy rescue over the weekend.
Whale-watching boats spotted the young cetacean stranded outside Dana Point Harbor with about 50 feet of netting and rope wrapped around its flukes, or tail.
With permission from the National Marine Fisheries Services, Dave Anderson of Capt. Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari attached a buoy to the animal to monitor it overnight as a team of whale-watch crew members, wildlife rehabilitation staffers and boaters with specialized training and gear assembled for a weekend rescue attempt the next morning.
The rescuers spent much of Saturday working to free the whale, using grappling hooks and lines to reel in the mammal and a knife to methodically cut away the mass of fishing debris. They named the whale Bart after the boater who stayed with it overnight as it drifted slowly up the coast.
After about seven hours, a line snapped and the whale dived, pulling a mass of buoys with it. Then, a minute or so later, the animal emerged free of any nets or entanglements.
"The support team on the nearby boat erupted in cheers," said Dana Friedman, one of the rescuers.
The volunteers discovered other dead creatures in the netting: a sea lion, a 5-foot leopard shark, two angel sharks and various spider crabs, fish and rays.
"This whale was towing an entire ecosystem behind it," Anderson said.
He and other rescuers said the whale's ordeal reflects a serious problem in oceans worldwide: marine life getting injured or killed when trapped in discarded fishing gear and debris.
"Unfortunately, this is not the first time we've experienced animals caught in gill nets," said Melissa Sciacca, a spokeswoman for the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, whose staffers took part in the rescue. "When marine mammals become entangled, they are not always able to surface properly to breathe, which can result in drowning."
When the whale was last seen four miles off Corona del Mar, rescuers said, it appeared healthy, with no signs of injury or illness.