When diver James Moskito arrived to help a drowning humpback whale off the coast of California, he was unsure if his team would be able to rescue her. Indeed, they tried to set the whale free for five hours. They’ll never forget the animal’s reaction to them, though.
The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Californi, has rescued injured and sick sea mammals for more than 40 years. The nonprofit organization treats the animals at its research hospital before releasing many of them back into the ocean.
Over the years, the Marine Mammal Center has cared for over 20,000 mammals. Most frequently, they help seals and sea lions. However, in 2005, they had an encounter with something much larger.
Mick Menigoz organizes whale watching tours off the California coast, so when someone spotted a humpback in trouble, they got in touch with him. He then reached out to the Marine Mammal Center to ensure that, together, they could do everything possible for the animal.
Menigoz set about assembling a team of divers for the rescue. It would be led by James Moskito, a professional divemaster and former scuba instructor. As soon as he heard about the situation, he was ready to drop everything.
And the team soon reached the whale, which was floating in waters close to the Farallon Islands. As it had followed its migratory route between Baja California and the Northern Californian coastline, the 50-foot female had become caught up in nylon ropes used in crab fishing – and nicknamed “blue steel.”
The ropes tethering the whale were some 250 feet long and led to a number of 90-pound crab traps at the bottom of the ocean. The animal was so tangled up that she was unable to swim at all. Above the water, though, all the divers could see was a small portion of the whale’s head, including her blowhole.
Later recalling the moment that he laid eyes on the whale, Moskito told White Shark Video, “I remember it like it was just a few minutes ago. The whale came up on a breast, came up, put its eye above the surface, looked at me – I could tell it was looking at me – and just stayed there.”
As she struggled, the nylon ropes had cut deeply into the whale’s flesh, ripping large pieces of blubber from her body. To avoid further injury, the divers had a race against time on their hands. They descended into the depths in order to get a better look at what was going on beneath the waves.
It was only as the divers got closer to the animal that they realized just how desperate her situation was. “I was the first diver in the water, and my heart sank when I saw all the lines wrapped around it,” Moskito told The Orange County Register in 2005. “I really didn’t think we were going to be able to save it.”
The ropes were twisted around the whale’s tail and a line was running through her mouth. And due to the weight of the crab pots that they were attached to, the animal was being pulled downwards. As a result, it was a struggle to keep her blowhole above water.
Over the course of the next five hours, the divers worked hard to cut the whale free. All the while, the humpback calmly floated in the water. It was as if she knew that the team of divers were there to help her rather than to harm her.
But as the whale watched the team, she was giving off an unusual vibration, Moskito said. “When I was cutting the line going through the mouth, its eye was there, winking at me, watching me,” he recalled. “It was an epic moment of my life.”
During the rescue attempt, the team of divers had to have their wits about them. A jerk of a humpback’s tail is powerful enough to cripple or kill. Furthermore, the waters around the Farallon Islands are known to be frequented by sharks.
However, once the divers had set the whale free, an amazing thing happened. Indeed, it seemed as if she was celebrating her rescue by swimming around in circles. She then approached each member of the team, one by one, rubbing up against them as she did so.
For Moskito, it was a moment that he’ll never forget. “It seemed kind of affectionate, like a dog that’s happy to see you,” he said. “I never felt threatened. It was an amazing, unbelievable experience.”
Indeed, according to Moskito, the whale was trying to show her gratitude to her saviors. “It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and that we had helped it,” he said. “It stopped about a foot away from me, pushed me around a little bit and had some fun.”
Even Menigoz, an experienced whale watcher, was stunned. “You hate to anthropomorphize too much, but the whale was doing little dives, and the guys were rubbing shoulders with it,” he said. “I don’t know for sure what it was thinking, but it’s something that I will always remember. It was just too cool.”
Nobody knows for sure if the animal was really trying to thank her rescuers. However, humpbacks do appear to be more affectionate than other whales. “You do hear reports of friendly humpbacks, whales approaching boaters, especially in Baja California but, for the most part, they don’t like to be interacted with,” Shelbi Stoudt of the Marine Mammal Center told SFGate.
No matter what the whale’s amazing reaction to her rescuers really meant, Moskito remained convinced that her intentions were positive. “It was definitely a feeling of affection,” he told White Shark Video.