A humpback whale escaped from a fishing net it had become entangled in off Sagaponack on Monday afternoon, after two surfers paddled up to it and were able to cut some of the net’s thickest rope away from its tail.
Whales have become an increasingly common sight from South Fork beaches in recent weeks, as large schools of baitfish, known as bunker, have moved into area waters, often just beyond the waves breaking at the shoreline. On several days in the last week, beachgoers between Bridgehampton and Amagansett were treated to spectacular displays of humpback whales up to 60 feet long leaping from the sea or lunging upward through the dense schools of bunker, mouths agape, to gulp down dozens of the fleeing baitfish at a time.
But whales coming so close to shore also has introduced a new hazard.
Several witnesses on the beach at Townline Road in Sagaponack were watching a whale feed on bunker at midday on Monday when it swam directly into a long net strung between two buoys near the shoreline just to the west of the beach.
“We were watching it feeding over here, and then it swam into the net … and started rolling around and thrashing,” said Moses Barton, who was at the beach with his family. “We could see it coming up with the net across its face and pectoral fin.”
Two other beachgoers who had surfboards paddled out to the whale to try to help it.
“It was wrapped all around him, and he was spinning and getting wrapped up in it more and more,” said Aaron Warkov, one of the men. “We got most of the net off his backside and his tail. There was still some going over his breather hole and his head and one of his fins. We cut a major piece of the float-rope off his tail.
“We were making 2 or 3 inches of progress at a time,” he added. “Each time he’d come up for a breath, we’d cut a little bit more off. But we didn’t want to get in the water with him, because there’s a lot of net in the water, and one of us could drown.”
Sam Crooke, the other man who paddled out to the whale, said that before they got to it, the whale had become so entangled in the net it could barely move.
“When we got to it, it wasn’t moving—I wasn’t even sure it was still alive,” said Mr. Crooke, who is from Australia. “But once we freed its flippers, so it wasn’t dragging the whole net, it started diving and moving around more.”
The two men’s impromptu rescue effort was halted when Southampton Town bay constables arrived on the scene in a boat and told the men they had to stop for their own safety. The whale would have to wait until marine scientists from the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, which is the main response organization for large marine mammal strandings or deaths on Long Island, arrived to try to free it.
The whale lingered for more than two more hours, still tethered to the rest of the net by a portion of the rope that looked to be wrapped around one of its pectoral fins.
But shortly before a U.S. Coast Guard boat with the marine scientists aboard arrived, the whale suddenly vanished. After nearly an hour of monitoring the area around the net, the bay constables and scientists pulled up the net and found it mostly intact—and no whale to be seen.
They said that they believe the whale must have finally broken itself free from the main net and swum off, but offered concern that it may still have portions of the net tangled around its body.
The Atlantic Marine Conservation Society is asking that beachgoers keep a close lookout for signs of a whale with netting on it, and to report any sighting to the state stranding hotline, (631) 369-9829.
“I think this was a positive outcome, this time—which I don’t get to say much,” said Rob DiGiovanni, director of the conservation society.
Mr. DiGiovanni said that whale sightings have been on the increase all over Long Island in recent summers as the numbers of bunker have increased immensely. Some whale species themselves, humpbacks in particular, have also seen increases in their populations in the last few decades. But scientists are trying to determine whether the increased number of sightings is tied to there being more whales, or to the fact that there simply have been more whales within sight of land.
“There’s a lot more bait, food, in the water, so we have animals feeding here,” he said. “Twenty years ago, you could only go whale watching out of Montauk. Now, there are whales along the whole south shore of Long Island.”
Several species of whales swim along the south shore nearly year-round, feeding on abundant bait species like bunker, herring and sand eels. But the near-shore sightings have spiked substantially in the summer months as bunker populations have ballooned.
Mr. DiGiovanni said that scientists are also trying to get photos of identifying markings on the whales to they can determine if the sightings this summer are all of a small group of whales moving up and down the island’s coastline and being spotted many times, or if many whales are spread out throughout the region.
The net the whale was entangled in on Monday was a “gill net” set in the surf by commercial fishermen to catch striped bass and bluefish. The net is composed of a monofilament mesh connected to two buoys with anchors below them and a black flag attached to one end.
The method of fishing relies on fish that are swimming along a shoreline encountering the net and becoming entangled in it. The nets are sometimes left in the water for several days at a time, with the fishermen coming to check them and remove their catch each morning.
Several beachgoers on Monday expressed outrage that the nets are legal and can be left in the water when there are protected whales feeding nearby.
“Who gives these guys the permits to have these nets here?” asked Michael Hauer. “A dead whale will bring great white sharks. It’s a health hazard.”
Throughout Monday’s ordeal of the tangled whale, the large school of bunker the animal had been chasing lingered just a feet away.
Mr. Digiovanni lamented that entanglements with fishing nets are just one of a number of harmful or fatal encounters with man-made hazards in the sea that his group sees evidence of regularly. He said the group encourages regular citizens to report any sightings of whales and especially if any animals appear to be injured, sick or tangled in any kind of man-made material.
The group, however, also warns that approaching a injured, sick or dead whale is both illegal and potentially dangerous.
“Disentanglement procedures are extremely dangerous. AMCS urges the public, including swimmers, surfers and boaters, to keep a minimum distance of at least 150 feet at all times for safety as well as to not stress the animal and cause further harm,” said a statement from the group on Monday. “Whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and it is illegal to approach them. Whales in distress can also be dangerous, as they are unpredictable and very powerful.”