Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries/John Moran NOAA MHSRP permit 18786-01
NOAA-trained marine mammal responders collect a sample from the exhalation of an entangled a humpback whale on Sunday, August 27, near the mouth of Tracy Arm, Alaska.

A cruise ship in Southeast Alaska cut its anchor free Sunday to release a humpback whale tangled in the ship’s anchor chain. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says numerous whales were bubble net feeding in Holkham Bay near Tracy Arm, about 45 miles south of Juneau early Sunday morning, August 27. One humpback struck the ship Wilderness Explorer and became caught in the anchor line around 2:15 that morning.

The Wilderness Explorer is 186 feet long with capacity for 74 guests. It’s owned by UnCruise Adventures and offers one to two-week tours of Southeast Alaska between June and September. Company CEO Dan Blanchard said the ship had anchored near Wood Spit around 9 p.m. the night before.

“When the mate came on watch at midnight he noted that there were whales that had moved into the area,” Blanchard said. “We believed they were probably lunge feeding and can’t tell in the dark but one probably lunged and caught the anchor chain as best we can think of. There was no appearance of like a net or crab pot or anything else it was towing that might have precipitated this.”

NOAA Fisheries was notified of the entanglement just before 3 a.m. and contacted a network of trained specialists. Alaska Whale Foundation researcher Fred Sharpe and a team of specialists traveled from Baranof Warm Springs to Holkham Bay that morning. That team used a camera on a long pole to determine the anchor chain was wrapped around the lower jaw of the whale.
Sharpe said the situation was life threatening for the whale and it looked like it had injured itself trying to get free.

“The animal when we got there had been struggling for nearly eight hours and it was just sort of leaning over the chain, kinda draped on it,” Sharpe said. “It was resting. The crew of the Wilderness Explorer had done an excellent job of trying to prevent the animal from being pulled under by the weight of the chain, keep it near the surface and so the animal had the best chance of survival.”

After consulting with entanglement expert Ed Lyman by phone the team decided to cut the anchor chain at the vessel. That cut was made around 2 Sunday afternoon. Sharpe said it looked like the whale was able to get free of the remaining chain and he thinks the disentanglement was successful.

The team was able to get DNA samples from the whale’s spout and can learn about the animal’s health and gender.

“The spout is a highly diagnostic health indices,” Sharpe explained. “We’ve been working for the past two years with Ocean Alliance collecting spout samples. We can get all kinds of information about stress hormones, reproductive hormones, DNA, potential pathogens, the whole microbiome of the animal. So we have these library of samples of animals that most of them we believe are quite healthy and an animal in distress like this, we can do a comparative analysis and we get some idea of how it might have been impacted by this event.”

Sharpe thinks it is a younger humpback, about 35 feet long, most likely from the Hawaiian population that spends the warmer months in Southeast Alaska.

NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Jim Balsiger said the agency is grateful for the ship reporting the entanglement quickly and the professional response of the Alaska Whale Foundation.

UnCruise’s Blanchard said the anchor is in about 100 feet of water, thinks it can be recovered and the ship can be repaired.

“We’re gonna take it to Ketchikan shipyard on Saturday and have a whole new chain put in and use either our emergency anchor or one we’re having sent up. So we’re gonna be fine either way. We’ll get back down there when the boat goes by and put an underwater camera on it and see what it’s gonna take to get it back up. But, we will plan, or we do plan on retrieving it.”

The ship returned to Petersburg for installation of an emergency anchor after the incident.