Imagine if Marine Superhero was your job title? For Doug Sandilands, an Entanglement Response Specialist, it pretty much is!  Doug works at SR3 -a marine wildlife response, rehabilitation and research facility based out of Seattle, Washington. Made up of veterinarians and other researchers, the team works to reduce human-wildlife conflict and build a strong community to support the health of local wildlife. In addition, they are working to establish a marine life rehabilitation facility in West Seattle-the first of its kind in the area!  Our volunteer writer, Kathryn Gibb, sat down with Doug to talk about his exciting career.

Large whale entanglement response is a team effort, involving highly trained specialists.

You first started with the Vancouver Aquarium in 2000; where did your passion for marine mammals come from?

I grew up in Alberta.  On family camping excursions to BC and the west coast of the US, I loved spending time on, in and near the ocean. We did trips to the Vancouver Aquarium (where I was fascinated by killer whales) and camping trips to Tofino with my family (where I fell in love with the rainforest, waves and banana slugs) and Oregon and southern California (where I loved playing in the waves). But, I had never really considered the possibility of a career in marine mammal science and conservation. After high school I worked as a professional ski patrol at a ski hill in southern Alberta and got a degree in math and physics – thinking I wanted a career studying snow avalanches.  After moving to British Columbia an opportunity came up at the Vancouver Aquarium – a job requiring GIS mapping and database skills (of which I had gained some experience in from snow avalanche research) to map the location of whale sightings and help build a database to store these sightings. I was thrilled to be offered the position. My first day of work at the Aquarium was the day Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard was defending his PhD – so I was alone in the office most of the day entering sightings data from old log-books, with three belugas watching me through the underwater viewing window. I couldn’t believe my luck. Had I known from a younger age that I find working with wild animals so interesting, I probably would have followed a different path. But, then again, I likely wouldn’t have ended up doing the work I do now.

How did you get your start working with cetaceans?

I first worked for the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network in the fall of 2000. Funding for my position ended in the late spring of 2001, but the Aquarium’s Dr. John Ford helped me find a position at the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve. That led to 10 years of spending my summers working at the North end of Vancouver Island running the Robson Bight Warden Program and helping with the Straitwatch program (a program to educate recreational whale watchers and measure the level of vessel presence and interactions with killer whales). Through the fall, winter and spring I worked at the Aquarium and later part time with Cetus Research & Conservation Society – a non-profit organization a bunch of us created to run the Warden Program and Straitwatch. During that time, I also helped organize a large whale entanglement response training at the Aquarium and later helped with three responses to entangled humpback whales around Vancouver Island. As my skills in understanding of whale behavior, boat handling, and line handling (from climbing and sailing) were all useful in large whale entanglement response, I sought out more training at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, MA. I attended a two-week training with CCS in 2010. Collectively that team has responded to around 300 entanglements since the early 1980s and the techniques they pioneered have since been adopted around the world. I found the training fascinating, and, while I was there I participated in the response of an entangled right whale.  When a position with the team came up the following year, I jumped at the opportunity and moved to Cape Cod. I was there for five years before I moved back to the west coast and started working for SR3 Sealife Response Rehab and Research.

You worked with CCS’s Marine Animal Entanglement Response program for 5 years; how does your experience as a disentanglement specialist vary from the East coast to the waters of the Pacific Northwest(PNW)?

During my time with CCS’s MAER program we responded to 37 entangled whales and 35 entangled leatherback sea turtles. The MAER team is on call daylight hours, year-round and most of the entanglements are discovered within an hour or two travel time from Provincetown. The network of whale watchers, sport and commercial fishermen, US Coast Guard, harbormasters, ferry captains and others, have been trained for decades about how to report entanglements, to stay with the whale (or sea turtle) while the MAER team is underway and to document the entanglement.  The success of the program relies heavily on these partner organizations.  In addition, CCS has refined these techniques over 35 years – the first disentanglement was in 1984. The relationship between the entanglement response team and humpback, fin, and right whale programs at CCS is another huge reason for their success.  In addition to giving team members the opportunity to develop excellent skills working around whales, research surveys often find entangled whales. In 2015, during CCS research surveys, nine entangled whales were discovered and, with the MAER team aboard we were able to respond immediately, remove all the life-threatening gear and collect great photo, video and biological samples.

In BC and the PNW there have been fewer reports than on the east coast. Some of this is likely due to fewer whales becoming entangled – population studies on the East coast show that about 75% of the humpback whale population have scars from entanglements, whereas in BC, WA and OR  between 33% and 50% of humpback whales show evidence of having been entangled at least once. In addition, these whales are spread out over a bigger geographical region with a smaller human population to discover and report them.  One of the main goals of the Entanglement Response Network in the PNW right now is to increase the number of mariners looking for entangled whales and to teach mariners what to do when they find an entangled whale – which we do through numerous education and outreach efforts.

In WA and OR we have 3 people authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service to lead a response for an entangled whale. Two others are authorized to add a satellite telemetry tag (attached to the entangling gear to track the whale until trained and authorized responders can be mobilized) and twelve other folks are training for this authorization. Cascadia Research Collective (CRC) has been responding to entanglements since 1994, and will continue to be one of the primary entanglement response organizations. NMFS has distributed several gear caches to organizations throughout WA/OR.  SRhas purchased more specialized gear and larger fast boats to ensure a response can be undertaken throughout the coast as quickly as possible and is planning to collaborate with CRC  to undertake population surveys with a team capable of undertaking a response in case we come across an entangled whale during research efforts.

Do you find locals/fishermen receptive to helping the cause in both regions?

Yes – overwhelmingly fishermen set their gear legally and do not want injure whales. Plus, damaged or lost gear is costly expenses that anyone would want to avoid. There are efforts on both coasts to reduce the incidents of entanglement through fishing gear modification and to reduce the amount of line in the water. Fishermen are absolutely part of the solution.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned while working with marine mammals?

Whales do not know that you are there to help them. They are injured wild animals and can be dangerous. The techniques and equipment we use keep us out of the “danger zone” as much as possible.

How many disentanglements have you done with SRso far?

First, the word disentanglement implies just removing gear from the whale. However, this is only a small part of what we hope to accomplish when an entangled whale is reported – so we refer to the work as entanglement response. In addition to removing the life-threatening gear from the whale a priority of the response includes documentation of the whale (it’s individual ID, wounds and health) and the entangling gear (what kind of gear and how it was wrapped on the whale). This information can be used to understand the problem and how to prevent whale entanglements. We’re lucky if we get 10% of entanglements reported to the network – so we’re always thinking of all the entangled whales we don’t find or hear about and need to learn as much as we can from the ones we do find.

In 2017 in Washington and Oregon we had four reports of entangled whales (which is about average) and we were able to respond to two of them. The first, in April, was a gray whale calf on it’s first migration north that was caught in around 8 gear sets – and was unfortunately deceased before someone found it to report. Folks from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Cascadia Research Collective, the National Marine Fisheries Service and SR3 responded – it was just off the Columbia River on the outer coast – and disentangled the whale in order to tow the whale to a safe place up the Columbia River for a necropsy and to collect information on the gear.

The second report was of a young humpback whale off San Juan Island in October that had gillnet on it’s rostrum (chin) that ran through its mouth and down its side to its pectoral fin. Documentation from whale watchers showed that there was no rope involved – just gillnet mesh. Because of how the gillnet was on the whale and that there was nothing wrapping the whale, our team (in consultation with other experts in Hawaii and California) confirmed that it was not a life-threatening entanglement – the whale was likely to shed the gear on its own and it wasn’t in a configuration that would impede the whale’s normal behavior. In addition, because there was no line, responders would really have no way to grab the gillnet in order to remove it – the gillnet would just tear under the weight of our “grapples” – and the response would be dangerous for the responders and stressful for the whale. This situation, where we decide not to remove gear, is not uncommon. However, we did want to get as much documentation to confirm exactly how the whale was entangled (did we miss anything in the documentation we had from whale watchers?) and to collect photos and a sample of blubber that could match the whale to a known individual and population. This is especially important in our area, as there are 3 breeding populations of humpback whales (from Central America, Mexico and Hawaii) that migrate to feeding areas on the west coast from California to Alaska. Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Central American population is considered endangered, the Mexican population is considered threatened and the Hawaiian breeding population is considered not at risk. Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, humpbacks are listed as a species of Special Concern. We get a mix of whales from all three populations in Washington and southern BC, so knowing which population the whale came from is important to managers who are trying to protect these populations.  Team members from the Whale Museum on San Juan Island were able to collect some more photo documentation when the whale was [seen again] in December. Hopefully, these photos will be able to be used to match with photos of the whale taken on one of the breeding grounds, and, we’ll know if it returns next year based on these photos. Additionally, having good photos of its body condition (how fat or skinny the whale is, for example) will help understand the health effects of entanglements.

What is the greatest challenge to disentangling cetaceans and how do you manage?

Every case is quite different. Sometimes it is the behaviour of the whale that is the greatest challenge (such as a humpback calf we had in 2012 that towed us along at 8 to 10 knots for an hour). Other times it is the gear (such as a 1 ½” thick piece of line around the head of a humpback whale that took over an hour for the knife to cut through). Sometimes it is people (such as the five news helicopters we had circle over us while we were trying to work on a whale off Boston – and the whale was reacting to the noise). Sometimes it is multiple factors (such as a humpback whale we had off of Maine that had 25 wraps of line from lobster pots around its tail that was held deeply underwater and gillnet through its mouth-while we were rocked by an 8-foot swell).  As such, there’s no large whale entanglement response manual. Training is by apprenticeship – working with people who have tons of experience. We manage by having great team members that can work through problems together, remain cool-headed, trust each other, and agree on principles, guidelines and priorities that have been worked out over thirty five years.

Does SRwork with local fishermen to mitigate potential gear hazards and taking preventive measures to avoid losing gear? In your opinion is this a viable strategy for the future?

Keep in mind that any type of rope, line, cable or chain in the water can (and has) entangled whales. That said, the majority of gear removed from whales that can be identified are sourced back to active fishing gear (not marine debris or ghost gear, as many often think).  The fishing industry takes this very seriously and are working to address this problem world-wide. There are working groups in California and Oregon – with members from NMFS, state governments, commercial and tribal fishing industry organizations, research and non-profit organizations that are looking at ways to modify gear and potentially shift the timing of fishing effort to avoid whale migration.

On the east coast, a take reduction team has been looking at ways to reduce the number and severity of  large whale entanglements since the late 1990s.  SR3 is participating in an effort on the east coast to explore the option of a ropeless fishery; i.e. they would have pots that could be retrieved without using ropes. There are many hurdles to overcome (financial, technological, social, and legislative) before this would be successful, but removing rope from the water column would have the biggest impact on reducing the probability of a whale becoming entangled.

What’s the best piece of advice you have for someone who wants to get involved in this line of work, or in marine mammal studies in general?

I would advise people interested in this line of work to get the widest variety of skills they can. Obviously, good grades are important, but students that can also bring practical skills such as boat handling, strong math and statistics, technology, etc. are an asset! I spend a fair bit of my time repairing boats and other equipment and am often thinking of how to develop new tools to that could help to cut lines or document entanglements. I still apply skills I got while working with a machinist and as a welder’s helper.

If you come across an entangled whale please report it immediately to 1-800-465-4336 in Canadian waters and 1-800-767-9425 in US Waters.  Please monitor the whale from a safe distance, and be aware that line can become attached to your boat. Take as many pictures as possible to aid response efforts.