MAALAEA, Hawaii (KHON2) — Humpback whales have been migrating to the waters that surround Hawai’i since before humans inhabited the islands.

With the introduction of industrialized fishing and continued growth of the human population, whales are having a difficult time navigating their native waters.

Get Hawaii’s latest morning news delivered to your inbox, sign up for News 2 You

The Department of Land and Natural Resources announced that it is working with first responders to train them to help whales untangle from fishing gear and marine debris. In worst case scenarios, these materials kill the whale.

According to the DLNR, there are a dozen or more times each season when whales need to be disentangled.

Untangling a whale can take hours or even days. So, when a report comes in that a whale is in need, a highly specialized group that is led by federal and state workers responds.

“My analogy is we’re looking for a single needle in a stack of needles in a gigantic haystack,” said Chad Yoshinaga, Safety Program Manager at NOAA’s Pacific Islands Science Center.

Time is of the essence when needed to disentangle a whale. So, the quicker this group receives a report about a distressed whale, the better.

Experienced and novice whale disentanglement specialists took to the sea for several days of training and skill refreshment in December.

During whale watching season, Ed Lyman of NOAA is the whale sanctuary’s Regional Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator under NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. He leads this season’s training which is the first since the pandemic.

“We’re working around enormous, moving animals at times in heavy seas and always from moving boats. The safety of our disentanglement teams is paramount. We obviously want to free the whales, but we have to do it without getting anyone hurt,” Lyman explained. 

Training is a thorough process that includes on-board briefing and checks on experience levels of the team’s members along with their comfort level with various tasks and how they are generally feeling.

“It’s risky business trying to free a 40-ton whale, so you want to deal with the what-ifs. So, one boat is going to approach and work on the whale, while the other one is there to protect all the people involved,” Lyman said.  

DLNR said that “for training, the bow of the support boat carries a wooden whale tail, draped with various sizes of fishing line. It becomes the stand-in for a live animal to give everyone an opportunity to practice or learn how to throw grappling hooks and cut lines while bouncing around in the waves; all while managing a large knife at the end of a 14-foot or longer pole. It’s not easy work and requires years of practice and experience.”

“You need two or three people on the inflatable approach boat, and you need a good five on the support boat to address all the roles. A helms person, a crew member, someone doing documentation, a gear person and a safety officer. That’s someone who is not doing anything but watching the big picture.” 

A team of rescuers typically includes a bow person who watches the animal and holds onto the gear, a helm person and a safety person.

DLNR said that it takes years of experience to become a top-level disentanglement expert. However, regardless of their expertise, the people who choose to become a whale rescuer are dedicated and passionate.

Get news on the go with KHON 2GO, KHON’s morning podcast, every morning at 8

It is not easy to rescue a sea-faring beast that can weigh anywhere from 55,000 to 66,000 pounds. But, the people who are capable of taking on this task are true heroes.