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Saved the Whale

Claim:   Photograph shows a formerly ensnared whale thanking one of her rescuers.

REAL PHOTOGRAPH;
INACCURATE DESCRIPTION

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, December 2010]

If you read the front page story of the SF Chronicle on Thursday, Dec 14, 2005, you would have read about a female humpback whale who had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso and a line in her mouth. A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farralone Islands (outside the Golden Gate) and radioed an environmental group for help.

Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so badly off that they must act immediately. The only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her, a very dangerous proposition. Just one slap of the tail could kill a rescuer. They worked for hours with curved knives and eventually she was freed.

When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently around, she was thanking them.. Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives. The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth says her eyes were following him the whole time, and he will never be the same."

 

Origins:   At about 8:30 AM on Sunday, 11 December 2005, a crab fisherman working the open waters east of the Farallon Islands, about 18 miles off the coast of San Francisco, spotted a whale that
had become entangled in the nylon ropes that link crab pots. The whale was a female humpback, about 45 to 50 feet in length and weighing an estimated 50 tons, who had likely become snared while traversing the humpbacks' usual migratory route between the Northern California coast and Baja California.

A rescue team was hastily assembled, and by 2:30 PM divers had evaluated the situation and determined that the imperiled whale was so badly entangled in the crab pot lines that the only way to save her was to dive beneath the surface and cut the nylon ropes that were ensnaring her. As James Moskito, one of the rescue divers, reported:
"I was the first diver in the water, and my heart sank when I saw all the lines wrapped around it," said Moskito. "I really didn't think we were going to be able to save it."

Moskito said about 20 crab-pot ropes, which are 240 feet long with weights every 60 feet, were wrapped around the animal. Rope was wrapped at least four times around the tail, the back and the left front flipper, and there was a line in the whale's mouth.

The crab pot lines were cinched so tight, Moskito said, that the rope was digging into the animal's blubber and leaving visible cuts.

At least 12 crab traps, weighing 90 pounds each, hung off the whale, the divers said. The combined weight was pulling the whale downward, forcing it to struggle mightily to keep its blow-hole out of the water.
Four divers spent about an hour cutting the nylon ropes with a special curved knife, a risky undertaking since a single flip of the gargantuan mammal's tail could easily have killed any of them. Eventually they freed the humpback, a feat that a representative of the Marine Mammal Center (MMC) in Marin County described as the first successful attempt on the West Coast to free an entangled humpback.

The divers told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that the whale seemingly thanked them for its deliverance once the rescue operation was complete:
When the whale realized it was free, it began swimming around in circles, according to the rescuers. Moskito said it swam to each diver, nuzzled him and then swam to the next one.

"It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and that we had helped it. It stopped about a foot away from me, pushed me around a little bit and had some fun. It seemed kind of affectionate, like a dog that's happy to see you," Moskito said. "I never felt threatened. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience."

Whale experts say it's nice to think that the whale was thanking its rescuers, but nobody really knows what was on its mind.

"You hate to anthropomorphize too much, but the whale was doing little dives and the guys were rubbing shoulders with it," Mick Menigoz said. "I don't know for sure what it was thinking, but it's something that I will always remember. It was just too cool."
While the textual element to this item is largely truth-based, the accompanying photograph (as shown above) has nothing to do with the referenced event — it captures an encounter between cameraman Marco Queral and a 50-ft. female humpback whale which took place nearly four years later in the South Pacific.

Another image of an ensnared sea denizen has also been used in conjunction with this item, although it too does not depict the event described. This picture shows what was described in news accounts as a different whale photographed trying to escape from a net in which it had become trapped off Australia's Gold Coast in September 2005:


Last updated:   6 July 2014

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Sources:

    Fimrite, Peter.   "Daring Rescue of Whale Off Farallones."
    San Francisco Chronicle.   14 December 2005.

    Shanks, Anna.   "Diver's Extraordinary Encounter with 50ft Humpback Whale."
    Metro.co.uk.   19 August 2009.