Meet the Biologists Who Rescue Whales Trapped in Fishing Gear

NOAA Fisheries Service scientists disentangle a young North Atlantic right whale off the coast Florida.
NOAA Fisheries Service scientists disentangle a young North Atlantic right whale off the coast Florida.

Scott Landry and his team had been searching the waters of Cape Cod Bay for hours without any luck. For several days in September, mariners had reported to the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, that they'd seen a humpback whale trailing ropes and buoys from its enormous body. Landry, the center's director for marine animal entanglement response, knew time was growing short: Every day a whale spends entangled costs it precious energy and increases its chances of dying.

The crew had checked every reported location and was growing concerned about the fading daylight when a whale-watching boat called to say it had spotted the animal more than 20 miles away.

The five-member team sped out of the bay on their 35-foot, 600-horsepower rigid inflatable boat toward the animal's last known location. Finally spotting it, they worked to get close enough for a clear look at how the ropes and buoys were wrapped around the whale's body.

It wasn't easy. The boat bounced in the wind and rough seas. The whale moved quickly and obscurely, diving for up to seven minutes at a time. No one knew what direction the animal was moving or where it would surface. When it did come up for air, it disappeared again almost immediately. "We need a clear idea of how a whale is entangled to disentangle it properly,” Landry tells Mental Floss. “We had about two seconds when it came up for a breath."

When he finally got a look, the news wasn't good. "It was the worst kind of entanglement—a rope wrapped around its upper jaw," Landry recalls. Because a whale's head is seldom above the surface and ropes there may not trail as far, they prove hardest to remove. "The whale was moving at high speed, we were moving at high speed, and we had to pace alongside it and get within 30 feet to cut it free. The window of time and the target were both small."


A North Atlantic right whale with fishing line embedded in its jaw.
Getty Images

This time of year, many humpback whales travel from feeding grounds off the coast of Canada and New England to winter calving grounds in waters around Florida and the Caribbean, a journey of more than 1000 miles. A surprising number of them are dragging materials along with them—rope, nets, and other gear in which they've become hopelessly entangled. Increased fishing in areas where whales forage has resulted in more entanglements, which can kill them.

Humpback whales reach weights of 80,000 pounds and lengths up to 60 feet. You need a good reason to approach one of these massive creatures in a small craft on the open ocean. The special teams that free the whales believe it's worth risking their lives to save these endangered cetaceans.

These teams exist all over the world. Landry's institute, the Center for Coastal Studies, has freed more than 200 large whales and other marine animals since 1984. It belongs to the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network, which includes National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries offices, state offices, and research institutions from Florida to Canada.

The U.S. had 123 confirmed entangled whale cases in 2016 alone, but the ones we see likely represent only a fraction of the total. Jamison Smith, disentanglement coordinator for NOAA, tells Mental Floss that lack of centralized record-keeping early on means no one knows the actual number, but since the early 1980s, it has hit at least the low thousands. At least 83 percent of North Atlantic right whales became entangled at least once between 1980 and 2009, and more than half of the humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine have had at least one entanglement.

"Right whales and humpbacks have a huge problem," Michael Moore, senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), tells Mental Floss. "Something radical has to happen, or these species are going to go away."

A WORLDWIDE—AND DEADLY—PROBLEM

Marine animals get caught up in just about anything humans put in the water, and we put in a lot of stuff—commercial fishing gear, recreational fishing gear, buoy warning systems, trash. "This problem plagues whales throughout the world," Amy Knowlton, research scientist at the New England Aquarium's Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, tells Mental Floss. "It is one of the biggest conservation issues for marine mammals."

Whales off U.S. coasts most often get tangled in active fishing gear. On the East Coast, it's mostly snow crab and lobster gear. At the height of lobster season, close to a million vertical lines lurk in waters off Maine, and North Atlantic right whales, which are facing extinction in part due to entanglements, may encounter these lines about 2500 times a year. These plankton-grazing whales, which can reach 55 feet long and weigh 128,000 pounds, move slowly through the ocean with open mouths, so most entanglements start there, Knowlton explains. Once ensnared, the whales tend to thrash and roll, which only makes the problem worse, wrapping the ropes through their baleen and around their heads and flippers.

On the West Coast, where NOAA had 71 reports of whale entanglements in 2016, the vast majority in the past two years involved Dungeness crab fishing gear, located along the entire coast. Last year, for example, that gear was responsible for 22 out of 29 entanglements that NOAA definitively associated with specific fisheries or gear types.

Ghost nets—abandoned fishing gear drifting in the ocean—also entangle whales, as does other debris. Junk tends to be more prevalent in certain parts of the ocean, accumulating in gyres and along currents. More debris equals more entanglements.

In a 2012 paper in Conservation Biology, WHOI researcher Julie van der Hoop reported that scientists determined cause of death for 43 percent of 1762 known whale mortalities in the Northwest Atlantic between 1970 and 2009. Of those, 67 percent resulted from human interactions, and entanglement in fishing gear was the primary cause of death.

Entanglement can cause whales to drown or seriously injure and eventually kill them. If they survive, the gear can easily double the drag an animal experiences as it moves through the water. "They can't feed, and they exert a lot more energy just to swim, dragging that gear," Knowlton says. "Their health declines and, if they don't drown at the outset, they experience a slow, painful death."

Expending that extra energy can mean the difference between a female successfully reproducing or not, according to Moore, and with so few right whales remaining, reproduction is critical to survival of the species.

"The calving rate in North Atlantic right whales has been sparse, driven to some degree by lack of food but also wasteful pursuits such as swimming through the water pulling a whole bunch of excess drag," Moore says.

Even whales that free themselves or are freed by humans experience stress, pain, and loss of energy.

THIS IS HOW YOU FREE A WHALE

Aerial view of North Atlantic right whale that a team of state and federal biologists assisted in disentangling off Daytona Beach, Florida.
A team of state and federal biologists help an entangled right whale off Daytona Beach, Florida.

In order to disentangle a whale, you first have to find it. "When you consider the size of the ocean, the odds of that happening are incredibly small," Landry says. In some areas, most reports come from commercial fishing operations. The research community and the public also report whales in need of help.

Once a team reaches the whale, they have to assess the situation before taking any action. "You might think we just get in there and start cutting stuff off the whale," he continues. "But we found through trial and error that doesn't help. You have to understand how the whale is entangled and strategically cut things away. Every situation, every whale differs. Sea conditions differ. No two disentanglements are alike."

Often, the first step is for a crew member to use grappling hooks to attach buoys to the animal to help them track it and slow it down. This tactic is one of many they use that was inspired by historic whaling techniques, Smith says, but there's a key difference: "They were trying to kill the whale and we're trying to save it, which is harder to do."

Meanwhile, another crew member with a camera on a long pole assesses the situation. The team then determines the best approach and attempts to cut the whale free using specially designed knives on long poles.

"You're running on adrenaline, focused on the animal and the gear and how to best access that in a safe manner," Knowlton says. "I've spent a lot of time with right whales, and feel I have a sense of what to expect, but they always throw surprises at you. It is not a comfortable situation to be in. I really wish nobody had to be in it."

Keeping crews safe remains priority one. Whales are large, powerful animals. Entanglement creates stress and—despite a popular misconception that whales understand our motives—they have no idea we are trying to help them, Landry says. "Their response is a fear response. Most deal with it by trying to flee, but others will try to defend themselves."

Even so, only one person has died while disentangling a whale under current protocols. Joe Howlett, a long-time member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team in Canada, was killed July 10, 2017, off New Brunswick by a just-freed right whale, which may have breached or flipped.

Network members plan a response based on the animal's distance from shore, weather, time of day, and availability of resources such as boats and crew. "The biggest challenge is trying to keep a consistent crew on call day in and day out, year after year," Landry says.

The success rate varies. "If we can get our hands on the whale, figuratively, we have about an 85 percent chance of disentangling a humpback," Landry says. "A 50 to 60 percent chance on a right whale."

Knowlton points out that 25 percent of all entangled animals reported just disappear: "A lot more we see multiple times, but weather and other challenges mean we can't get out there. In short, disentanglement is not the solution."

Eliminating whale entanglement entirely would require keeping all rope and debris out of the ocean—not a likely scenario. But lawmakers and scientists are working on solutions. Seasonal restrictions on fishing and modification of gear could help.

Rope strength plays a role, according to Knowlton. Strength of ropes used by commercial fishing has increased, and with it, the severity of whale injuries. Using rope that breaks at 1700 pounds—more than strong enough for the majority of fishing needs but something a whale likely could break—could reduce probability of mortality by 72 percent.

Developing gear that doesn't use ropes could make an even bigger difference. This has been done in parts of the world, and oceanographic researchers routinely retrieve gear using GPS and tracking technology and not ropes. "With economies of scale, that could be conceivable for fisheries," Moore says. "The argument that you need a plastic float on the surface to know where a trap is set is a little antiquated given the technology we have now." Ropeless methods could even help fishermen, because they lose gear to whale entanglements.

As for the whale Landry's team pursued in September, after an hour of near misses, the team was able to finally get close enough to cut the rope free with a hook-shaped knife on the end of a 30-foot pole. As they always do, they removed the rope and buoys from the water. (The National Marine Fisheries Service archives all removed gear for continued study, with the ultimate aim of better understanding and, ultimately, preventing entanglement.)

Had the tourist boat not happened upon the whale, it almost certainly would have died.

"That's one of our biggest fears," Landry says. "It was just a tiny chance for someone to see that whale before it left the area entirely and went somewhere we would never find it." It's happened before, he notes. "You win some and lose some. It's a big responsibility. On the bright side, more often than not, we're able to get the job done."

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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