North Atlantic right whale no. 1218, an adult male nicknamed Argo, has a new chance at life after being freed last month from lobster pots and commercial fishing rope tangled around his tail. Here’s how the rescue unfolded:

Friday, Jan. 27

Responders attach a tracking buoy and assess Argo's entanglement on Jan. 28. (CMARI/taken under NOAA permit 24359)

Responders attach a tracking buoy and assess Argo’s entanglement. (CMARI/taken under NOAA permit 24359)

A Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute survey plane spots Argo near Topsail Island, N.C. Word of his entanglement buzzes through the network of agencies and organizations working to save North Atlantic right whales, one of the most endangered large whale species in the world. A Duke University Marine Lab crew reaches Argo that day but is unable to attach a satellite tracking buoy due to limited daylight.

Argo, named after the ship in Greek mythology, was added to the right whale catalog in 1981, making him at least 42 years old. He’d last been seen in May in the Great South Channel off Cape Cod, Mass. – free of commercial fishing gear.

Photographs by Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute (CMARI) and Duke show that the entanglement is life-threatening. Without intervention, this right whale will die.

Saturday, Jan. 28

A CMARI plane surveys a grid ahead of Argo’s path and finds him 27 miles farther south, about 16 miles off Carolina Beach, N.C. Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) staff trained in responding to disentanglements and equipped with specialized gear had left for North Carolina early that morning in case Argo was resighted. They head offshore to the whale’s location where Duke biologists in a second vessel join them. CMARI survey planes provide aerial support. The goal: Assess the entanglement and deploy a tracking buoy to monitor Argo’s movement and allow for additional response efforts.

Argo is dragging two lobster pots just behind his flukes (Duke University Marine Lab/taken under NOAA permit #24359)

An underwater view of the lobster pots Argo is dragging (Duke University Marine Lab/taken under NOAA permit 24359)

At about 1:45 p.m., the crew successfully lobs a grapple across the half-inch thick fishing rope the whale is trailing and attaches a tracking buoy and an orange marker buoy to the rope. Responders also use a pole camera to take underwater video. The footage reveals that Argo is dragging two crushed lobster pots just behind his flukes. The rope connected to the pots encircles the base of the whale’s tail and is embedded deep in the flesh. Drone video overhead shows the whale using his flippers instead of his tail, or flukes, to swim, presumably because of the pain or injuries caused by dragging the lobster pots and rope.

The details are used to develop a disentanglement response plan.

Sunday, Jan. 29

The team is on the water early with three vessels, including a smaller “combat” inflatable boat. Argo is now 25 miles southeast of Cape Fear, N.C. and 23 miles offshore. At about 10 a.m., the boats reach him. Argo is swimming slowly, only about 1-2 knots. As the boats approach, he begins swimming evasively, moving in random directions.

Responders close in with the inflatable boat, using the buoy line attached to the trailing rope to pull up behind the whale’s flukes. They first try to cut the rope on the right side of the peduncle – where the fluke blades connect to the body — with fixed-pole knives. It doesn’t work: The rope is embedded too deep in the flesh and the knife blades are fixed at the wrong angle.

The team switches to a “flying” knife – it’s attached to a rope and buoy and used for cutting thick lines – and targets the rope on the left side of the peduncle. Over a tense period of about 20 minutes, all in close contact with the whale, the crew makes at least six cuts in the wraps of rope. A final cut is made, slicing into a loose loop of rope around the left fluke.

Argo is moving slower and spending more time at or near the surface. After the last cut, the crew in the inflatable boat falls back while still holding the buoy line, which is attached to the lobster pots.

Argo slowly swims forward. At 12:22 p.m., the rope goes slack and the pots sink to the sea floor. The whale is free.

Responders pull the pots and rope aboard Duke’s boat while the DNR boat follows Argo. Drone video shows a small rope segment attached near his fluke notch, but otherwise he appears gear-free. He is also swimming faster and seems to be using his flukes more – no longer pulling the gear he dragged more than 800 miles.

The Aftermath

On Feb. 3, Fisheries and Oceans Canada announces that a preliminary investigation involving that agency and NOAA determines the pot gear is from a lobster fishing area off Nova Scotia.

Argo isn’t out of the woods, of course. Given his injuries, he may not survive. But at least now he has a chance.

Entanglement in commercial fishing rope – like that used in lobster, snow crab and other fixed-gear fisheries – is the leading threat to North Atlantic right whales. Yet disentangling these school bus-sized animals is a dangerous and last-ditch response to conserving the fewer than 350 that survive. The greater goal is preventing entanglements.

Approaching entangled whales is dangerous. All activities involving Argo were conducted by authorized and trained responders operating under federal permits. The public should report sightings of entangled whales to 877-WHALE-HELP (877-942-5343) or to the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16, and not try to intervene.

The Team

Georgia DNR and Florida FWC led the disentanglement response, with Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute and Duke University Marine Lab providing field support. NOAA Fisheries, the Center for Coastal Studies and the New England Aquarium provided help off-site. Funding for disentanglement and CMARI aerial surveys was provided by NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, respectively.

All activities were conducted and images taken under NOAA permit no. 24359.

Top photo: Crew cuts fishing rope and lobster pots off Argo. (Duke University Marine Lab/taken under NOAA permit 24359)