Humpback whale draped with fishing rope breaches off Newport Beach on August 6. Photo: Courtesy of ©Mark Girardeau/Orange County Outdoors

An adult female humpback whale with a thick fishing line running through her mouth and wrapped tightly around her left pectoral fin is being monitored off Southern California, but there appears to be nothing anyone can do to help.

The 40-foot whale has become free of some line, and a commercial crab-fishing buoy she was trailing when she was spotted in the same area – off Newport Beach – in early August.


Humpback whale, now largely covered with lice, throws its fluke Wednesday off Newport Beach. Photo: Courtesy of ©Slater Moore

But the cetacean's body is now largely covered with lice, which implies deteriorating health, and the whale appears to have lost weight.

Also, over the past few weeks, the synthetic fishing line has formed a deep cut where the pectoral fin meets the body. The wound is raw, and the whale might be in danger of losing her fin.

Justin Viezbicke, the California Stranding Network Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told GrindTV that the problem with trying to rescue the whale has to do with the fact that there is no trailing line to grab onto, and that plunging in with sharp tools would be extremely dangerous for the whale and the rescue team.


The green line and a raw cut are visible at the base of the humpback whale’s left pectoral fin, very close to the bulging eye. Photo: Courtesy of ©Slater Moore

"With the main area of concern being the mouth and the pectoral fin, it makes it very difficult and dangerous to get in close enough to make any attempt at cutting the line," Viezbicke said. "Then add on that it takes the boat running up fast and close, and then the team puts poles with sharp shiny objects down into the water while moving, that come right at the whale's eye. So the whale then dives away, increases its speed and dive times to avoid us even more."

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Viezbicke was referring in part to attempts to rescue the whale during previous sightings, on August 6 and 7 off Newport Beach. The fishing gear became glaringly evident on August 6, in a photograph of the whale breaching by Mark Girardeau of Orange County Outdoors.

Attempts to rescue the whale back then, when there was more line and a buoy, were thwarted by the 40-ton whale's evasive behavior. (The whale also was spotted off Morro Bay in Central California in mid-August.)


"In short, as the whale's health decreases, the lice load increases,” expert says of the humpback whale. Photo: Courtesy of ©Slater Moore

During this week's sightings, matches of the distinctive fluke – proving it's the same whale – were made based on photographs by Dale Frink of Davey's Locker Whale Watching, Ryan Lawler of Newport Coastal Adventure, and Slater Moore of Newport Landing. Whale researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger assisted in the matching.

The hope now is that the line will somehow come loose and the whale will have freed herself. She was breaching and tail-throwing Wednesday and Thursday, perhaps in an attempt to lose the fishing line.

"It's following food around, but I don't know if it's feeding or just attempting to feed," Frink, who was alongside the whale on Thursday, told GrindTV. "It's definitely in an area where there's bait fish. There's at least one other humpback here feeding."

Unfortunately, however, the lice is a telling sign that the whale's health is deteriorating.

Said Viezbicke: "In short, as the whale's health decreases, the lice load increases. Unfortunately, while this whale is still able to move around and is very active, there is line in its mouth and this may be affecting its ability to forage effectively. This is in addition to the physical wounds which cause stress and add to the declining health status."

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