Alison Mytych of Thousand Oaks has been Malibu’s volunteer whale watcher for the past seven years. During the whales’ northward migration season each year from February to May, she spends hours every day counting the number of gray whales and their calves heading back to Alaskan waters for the summer, noting observations about their behaviors and physical conditions from various places along the Malibu coast.
While watching on April 26, she was already aware of a whale that was reported to be entangled in fishing gear off the Palos Verdes peninsula from a few days before; she knew it would be heading north on its migration.
“There had already been two disentanglement attempts on that whale, but it was tangled in thick netting that rescuers weren’t able to cut off before the whale slipped away,” Mytych said.
Then Mytych spotted it: “I could tell by the behavior—it was not breathing or moving correctly.” She contacted a local drone flyer to get aerial photos.
“I immediately identified it as the entangled whale,” she said. “But it takes a village to rescue a whale, and I contacted Justin Greenman, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) assistant whale stranding coordinator, to send a rescue team.”
The team was supposed to come out the following day, and Mytych returned to Malibu knowing they would need her eyes on land to help find the whale again.
“Using my seven years of experience, I was able to calculate about where it would be, and we spotted it up by County Line where there were several surfers, but then we lost it,” she explained. She notified county lifeguard crews and state beaches employees to be on the lookout for it. Then she got a message from NOAA saying the rescue wouldn’t happen until the next day.
In the meantime, the whale was spotted again just offshore. Eric “Rockman” Pierson, a Malibu stonemason and regular whale watcher, decided to set off on his surfboard with a pair of scissors tied around his neck to cut the whale loose.
“I’ll save the whale!” he yelled.
People had pulled over to the side of PCH in their cars, and cheering onlookers had gathered. Mytych was afraid he’d be arrested for harassing a marine mammal, which is illegal—even though she knew “he needed to do this in his heart.” However, the whale swam out to avoid him.
The next morning at 6 a.m., she estimated again about where the whale would be, based on what she learned in marine science classes at Oxnard College.
“The whale was crossing Port Hueneme Harbor just as we arrived,” she said. “I immediately notified the rescue team.” Unfortunately, for rescue purposes, the harbor was in chaos. “There were 500 dolphins in a feeding frenzy, plus sea lions, about 50 boats, kayakers, fishers and paddle boarders. It was a three-ring circus out there,” she said.
The rescue team showed up in inflatable boats about an hour later with the US Ventura acting as the standby vessel after launching from Ventura Harbor, and Mytych directed them to the whale. “The rescue all happened about a mile offshore near Anacapa Island.”
Greenman, NOAA stranding coordinator for the entire west coast, organized this rescue and described it in a phone interview. The coordinator said it typically takes time to organize a whale rescue because of the logistics, with different towns, counties and nonprofit organizations involved, specially trained volunteers that drive in, and coordination with boats and harbors. Human safety is paramount, because it’s dangerous work, he explained. One of his team members was killed last year after being struck by a whale’s tail.
After the whale was disentangled, “it just sat there,” Greenman said. And they know from experience that “If it doesn’t swim away, it’s not going to do well.”
The fishing gear wrapped around this animal was a nightmare.
“He was dragging 50 yards of gillnet, which weighed hundreds of pounds,” he described. “The float and weight lines are very challenging to remove, and the whale was dragging it along the ocean floor where it picked up heavy debris. We broke three knives on it. A gillnet is not a single line—it requires a lot of different precise cuts to remove.”
Very sadly, in this case, after the 35-foot juvenile was disentangled, he washed up dead on the Oxnard shore on May 3, where a necropsy discovered an unbelievable amount of trauma in his short life. There was mouth scarring, indicating that the fishing net had originally gotten stuck around his head and then gradually moved down to the tail; prop marks indicating that he had been hit by a boat, and rake marks from being attacked by a killer whale. He was also emaciated.
As of May 16, 58 dead gray whales washed ashore from California to Alaska since the beginning of the year, compared to 45 for all of last year, according to NOAA. There have not been this many deaths since 131 died in 2000. Many of the whales were extremely malnourished and emaciated, causing scientists to investigate what’s happening to their food sources. Others died due to ship strikes.