Angoon residents work to free gray whale

NOAA encourages public to call 24-hour hotline.

Frank Willis, Marsha Askoak and Edward Kookesh work to free a gray whale entangled in a rope from a broken crab pot Thursday evening in Angoon’s Favorite Bay. (Courtesy Photo)

Frank Willis, Marsha Askoak and Edward Kookesh work to free a gray whale entangled in a rope from a broken crab pot Thursday evening in Angoon’s Favorite Bay. (Courtesy Photo)

What seemed like a photo op turned into a risky rescue effort for an Angoon couple.

On Thursday around 6 p.m., Frank Willis and his girlfriend, Marsha Askoak, were traveling up Favorite Bay to check on shrimp in their crab pots when they saw a gray whale tangled in a rope left over from a broken defunct crab pot. At first their intention was to get close enough to take photos until they realized the whale was stuck. That’s when Willis said they decided to get close enough to try to free the whale themselves.

“I told my girlfriend there were whales in the bay, we love watching them, so she got her camera ready, we saw one and it took a while for it to come back up and when it finally did we thought it was on the surface of the water because we saw something on top,” Willis said. “We went over to it and saw it was dragging a broken crab pot along with kelp. So, I went alongside the rope, grabbed it, and Marsha pulled her knife out and cut the rope while I held onto the end to hopefully get it off and get the whale free.”

It took about an hour, but the duo were eventually able to untangle the whale and remove the rope from its mouth. Willis said they had no plans of giving up until they had succeeded.

Sadie Wright, Alaska region large whale entanglement and oil spill response coordinator with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, said that while what Willis did was noble and she’s grateful everything worked out in this instance, but often times the outcome can be much worse, resulting in further harm to the animal as well as the people trying to rescue it.

Instead of attempting a rescue, people who spot a stranded, entangled, injured or dead whale can call NOAA Fisheries’ 24/7 stranding hotline at (877)925-7773.

“People in small communities in Alaska are used to taking the initiative and are often quick to approach an injured animal, in this case a whale, and maybe they haven’t heard of our large whale entanglement program, so we’re trying to do more outreach,” Wright said. “A whale that’s entangled and scared and injured, it can lash out and hurt people very easily and it does happen. People have gotten killed by disentangling whales, so that’s a huge fear for us.”

Callers unable to get through because of a lack of service in a remote area, can call in via VHF on Channel 16 to the Coast Guard, and Wright said the Coast Guard has been great about routing all calls directly to NOAA.

Wright said taking photos is appreciated and helpful so long as people are able to do so while maintaining a safe distance of 100 yards. Wright said the photos can help determine whether the entanglement is life threatening, and if they need to launch a response. Also, staying and monitoring the animal from that safe distance is also helpful, Wright said, because it assists their teams in quickly locating the animal with the appropriate equipment.

“Entanglement is a significant source of injury and mortality to whales in Alaska, and we want to respond to help individual whales when the entanglement is life threatening,” Wright said. “In many cases, whales are able to self-release from entanglements as indicated by the large proportion of the humpback whale population with scars from past entanglements. We ask observers of entangled whales to work closely with our program to assess and document the incidents so we can determine if it is a life threatening event.”

• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at jonson.kuhn@juneauempire.com.

A gray whale swims alongside Frank Willis’s boat in Angoon Thursday evening. (Courtesy Photo)

A gray whale swims alongside Frank Willis’s boat in Angoon Thursday evening. (Courtesy Photo)

Frank Willis and company worked for over an hour to free the gray whale in Favorite Bay Thursday evening. (Courtesy Photo)

Frank Willis and company worked for over an hour to free the gray whale in Favorite Bay Thursday evening. (Courtesy Photo)

The backside of a gray whale was tangled up in the line of a broken crab pot Thursday evening near Angoon. (Courtesy Photo)

The backside of a gray whale was tangled up in the line of a broken crab pot Thursday evening near Angoon. (Courtesy Photo)

A remaining tag left from the broken crab pot the gray whale was trapped in shows a date from 2007 to 2008. (Courtesy Photo)

A remaining tag left from the broken crab pot the gray whale was trapped in shows a date from 2007 to 2008. (Courtesy Photo)

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of July 20

Here’s what to expect this week.

A U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Sitka helicopter hovers over Sitka Sound during routine hoist training. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Lt. Cmdr Wryan Webb)
Yakutat-bound charter flight missing from Juneau

Flight departed from Juneau on Saturday with three people aboard, according to U.S. Coast Guard.

President Biden at the White House on July 3. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden drops out of race, scrambling the campaign for the White House

Withdraws under pressure from fellow Democrats; endorses Vice President Kamala Harris to take on Trump.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, July 18, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Buttons on display at a campaign event Monday, July 8, 2024, in Juneau, urge supporters to vote against Ballot Measure 2, the repeal of Alaska’s current election system. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Ranked-choice repeal measure awaits signature count after Alaska judge’s ruling

Signatures must be recounted after judge disqualifies almost 3,000 names, citing state law violations.

The offices of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development in Juneau are seen on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska demographers predict population drop, a switch from prior forecasts

For decades, state officials have forecast major population rises, but those haven’t come to pass.

Neil Steininger, former director of the state Office of Management and Budget, testifies before the House Finance Committee at the Alaska State Capitol in January of 2023. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Neil Steininger, former budget director for Gov. Dunleavy, seeking District 1 Juneau Assembly seat

Downtown resident unopposed so far for open seat; deadline to file for local races is Monday.

A mother bear and a cub try to get into a trash can on a downtown street on July 2, 2024. Two male bears were euthanized in a different part of downtown Juneau on Wednesday because they were acting aggressively near garbage cans, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Two black bears in downtown Juneau euthanized due to aggressive behavior around people

Exposed garbage, people insistent on approaching bears contribute to situation, official says

Most Read