COLUMBIA, South Carolina – Scientists freed a young Atlantic right whale from tangled fishing gear Friday after riding alongside the animal on a U.S. Coast Guard cutter for nearly 24 hours, a spokeswoman said.
Rescue team workers off the South Carolina coast untangled the whale before noon, said Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (search). More than 150 feet of fishing line and other lobster gear was attached to the animal, one of an endangered species, authorities had said.
"They were able to ... get all the ropes and gear off the whale and completely free it," Barclay said.
With the whale still growing and the lines tightly wrapped around its head, it might have died without help, officials with the Center for Coastal Studies (search) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, had said.
To free the whale, workers added buoys and other weights to the gear to slow it down. At first, the whale fought, but after more weight was added, an aerial crew reported the fishing gear was gone. Barclay said the rescue crew members were heading back to shore.
The team began trailing the whale Thursday after it was spotted about 14 miles off the Charleston coast. Rescue team workers stayed within a half-mile of the mammal overnight and resumed removing lines at dawn Friday. Workers were aided by calm seas and light winds.
Rescue workers named the whale Yellowfin after the cutter that tracked it during the night.
Removing all the gear was "beyond our best hopes," said Bob Bowman, researcher with the Center for Coastal Studies who monitored the rescue mission by satellite.
Scientists had doubted the whale, which is approximately 2 years old and nearly 40 feet long, could be completely freed because is was so severely tangled in the fishing equipment.
There are only an estimated 300 Atlantic right whales (search) still alive after they were hunted almost to extinction by the early 1900s. Scientists say an estimated 60 percent of right whales become entangled in fishing lines.
The whale was one of two first spotted entangled Dec. 6 off the North Carolina coast. This whale was found again on Dec. 21 off the Georgia coast and a tracking device was attached to it.
The other whale has not been seen again, Barclay said.