The Saga of Scarlet (Updated April 23rd, 2017)


In 2004 researchers launched the “Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks” Project. The SPLASH project documented Humpback Whales in large numbers during a time when the populations of Humpback Whales were on the mend after the devastation of industrial whaling. An incredible 7,971 unique individuals over three seasons (2004-2006). During the 2005 season an adult female was identified and eventually placed in the Cascadia Research Collective’s catalog of Humpback whales and given the number CRC-11227.

On August 6th, 2016 whale watching boats in Orange County located a Humpback Whale with a severe entanglement from commercial fishing gear. The whale, an adult female approximately 40 feet in length, was subject to multiple rescue efforts in Orange County and off Morro Bay, CA further up the coast. Despite the courage and the valiant efforts of the entanglement response team, the whale was moving too fast and was breaching so frequently that it was too dangerous to make close approaches. The safety of the responders during any sanctioned rescue attempt is the utmost concern and if the prospect of injury or death is too great then teams will be asked to stand down. It is also worth noting that resources that would have been devoted to any rescue attempt when the whale was seen further North were unable to reply due to other whale entanglement responses already in progress closer to Monterey Bay. Fortunately, valuable documentation and observation recorded data that would be of vital importance later.

It is important to note that this disentanglement was extremely difficult, even for the most experienced members of Entanglement Response teams. The whale breached and thrashed its tail repeatedly, making close approaches very dangerous. In all rescue attempts, there is an extreme importance placed on the safety of the rescuers along with the well being of the whale.

On September 9th, 2016, an entangled whale was sighted near the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles County. LA County lifeguards responded of their own accord before NOAA affiliate teams could arrive. It is important to commend the courage and bravery of county lifeguards but it is also important to note that lifeguards are not necessarily trained and equipped to respond to these situations. The lifeguards removed a trailing buoy wrapped around the whale, unaware that more line and other wraps existed that they could not see below the surface. Removing easily removable gear is not always the best way to proceed, sometimes that trailing gear is useful for keeping a whale buoyant or tracking a whale while attempts are made to remove the less visible and potentially more lethal wraps. It is critical that private individuals and public agencies consult with experienced entanglement responders to ensure a safe and efficient rescue for both the whale and the human responders.

On September 13th, 2016, a large Humpback Whale was sighted. This whale was covered in a unique species of whale lice found only on the Humpback Whale, and the reddish appearance was like that of another whale with a similar infestation. However, a comparison of dorsal fins showed no match between this new whale and a previously sighted whale dubbed “Big Red”. After multiple sightings one photographer managed to not only capture a portion of the whale’s tail fluke, but also saw remnants of commercial fishing gear wrapped around the whale. Further analysis would not only match this whale to the sighting made on August 6th, but also to her identity as CRC-11227.

A new chapter was being written for CRC-11227’s story over 10 years after her story was first written. After rigorous review of her history, scientists believe she is the calf of another documented whale (dubbed CRC-10646 in the same catalogs that the two are a part of). This determination was made based on observations of the two whales swimming together in the open Ocean west of San Francisco Bay. The size disparity between the two whales, and the way the two interacted with each other also played an important role. Speculation will be the only way to fill the intervening gaps in her life between documented sightings, but the portions of her story that have been revealed to us teach us much about the life history of the Humpback Whale.

The original entanglement wrapped around the whale’s head and around the left pectoral fin, where the lines wound so tight that they began to cut into the skin. Adding to the mess were trailing lines and a buoy creating drag on her body as she swam. Becoming a fully-grown whale is not easy, it requires the consumption of hundreds or even thousands of pounds of food daily during the feeding seasons. Any loss of feeding opportunities damages a whale’s chances of survival prior to the winter migrations towards warmer waters and the fasting that typically occurs there.

When CRC-11227 was first encountered after her entanglement there was an outpouring of support and a network of trained and sanctioned groups sprang into readiness. It is important to remember that because whales are federally protected from harassment that any intervention on their behalf is regulated. Even individuals or groups with the best of intentions must be held to the same standard. Removing lines, traps, or debris from a whale is not easy and carries a serious risk of injury that exponentially increases for divers. Because of this, divers are not allowed in the water around entangled whales.

The internet spreads fantastic stories, but there is a much greater likelihood of injury or death when swimming with an entangled whale. One inadvertent swipe of a fin from a humpback whale has the power to shatter every bone in a human’s body with minimal effort on the whale’s part. There is also the risk of the human diver becoming caught up in the gear and drowning when the whale goes for a dive. Disentanglement efforts, when authorized, are conducted from the stability of small boats attached directly to the debris affecting the whale and only authorized after thorough documentation and planning.

 After multiple attempts in Orange County in southern California and off Morro Bay further north CRC-11227 vanished with her identity at this point not yet confirmed. A portion of the gear had been removed but not the entirety of it. Rescuers, experts, and concerned individuals would remain hopeful and vigilant as the encounter began to fade into memory. But thanks to the documentation by skilled photographers, an archive remained that would prove very useful.

A month later a whale would be spotted once again off Orange County. Covered in distinctive red whale lice and not lifting its tail, the whale proved incredibly difficult to identify. Only portions of the tail would be visible on the rare moment the whale would throw its tail sideways in a move known as the “peduncle throw”. But because of the thorough archive, the dorsal fin of this new arrival could be matched to the whale from the August 6th sightings. A clean shot of the underside of the fluke was also obtained, and the match to the whale from Cascadia Research Collective catalog of whales was made with the photos from the SPLASH project mentioned early on in this article.

A bigger picture of disparate stories was suddenly tied together thanks to the meticulous documentation and analysis of the collected images. With an identity confirmed and a history being written, a sense of urgency developed to try and see that this story would have a happy ending. Numerous attempts to film this whale were made. Footage from the decks of boats were combined with footage taken from drones from the sky and with GoPro cameras underwater. Whale watching boats from Long Beach, Newport Beach, and Dana Point all would have encounters. Thousands of people would get a glimpse of a whale, undoubtedly the first such glimpse of a Humpback Whale for many of them. Not many of them however, would be privy to this whale’s story.

Within a week of being re-sighted, it appeared as if CRC-11227 had shed the last vestiges of the entanglement on her own. The sporadic thrashing of her flukes, body, and tail had freed the rest of the gear her previous rescuers could not. 

 Due to the proliferation of red lice on her body and the new scars on her body from her injuries CRC-11227 was dubbed “Scarlet”. Scarlet’s story was picked up by local news outlets. It is the nature of the media to place a lot of focus on the efforts of the humans involved but Scarlet’s story did not end with the confirmation that her entanglement had ended. Life events for a whale are just chapters in the story that will continue until the end of the animal’s life. For Scarlet, a post-entanglement chapter has begun and the number of chapters following it will depend on her ability to recover. In the weeks after leaving Orange County, Scarlet was sighted in the channel between Long Beach and Catalina Island, presumably following food and showing signs of potential recovery.

It has only been very recently in modern human history where whales have ceased to be a commodity for most peoples. As efforts shifted towards studying these animals and the role they play in the ecosystem it has been realized that despite wide recognition of the species there is relatively little understanding. Scarlet’s story from the present forward may not ever be fully known to us but the glimpses of her life that she has offered may provide us with key information that can help others of her kind. Hope remains for her full recovery, and as of mid-October of 2016 there have been sightings that suggest her lice is receding and her body is gaining back strength. However, unless she is found after death the extent of her injuries may never be known.

Here is what we do know. One of the facts that the SPLASH project uncovered is that a very large number of Humpback Whales documented had suffered entanglement injuries. We also know that far more whales self-release than are rescued, and that unfortunately there are whales that will perish never having been documented. That is what makes each of these extremely unique individual encounters so important, and why the documentation of each encounter is just as important as the response. 

In the time that it has taken for this article to debut more whales have been encountered with entanglements. Along with a handful of Humpback Whales, there is also a well-known Blue Whale also in danger.  “Delta”, officially CRC-BM00135 was first documented in the Farallone Islands in 1987. Named for the upturned tips of her tail flukes, she is arguably one of the most well-known whales in the world. Her once sleek silvery skin is covered with wounds and lesions and her health has undoubtedly suffered. While it tragic, Delta’s fame may be a catalyst towards inspiring more individuals to act. 

Delta the Blue Whale prior to her entanglement.

Per National Marine Fisheries estimates, over 300,000 marine mammals are killed in fishing gear entanglement each year. Getting involved in helping fight the problem of fishing gear entanglement is not as difficult as it sounds. While opportunities to get directly involved in rescues is limited based on geography, boating experience, and the level of advanced training one has received there are numerous accessible opportunities that can have an even greater impact. 

 Safe seafood initiatives such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch have helped thousands of people make more informed decisions about the seafood they buy. Safer seafood not only helps increase the demand for sustainable fish but also rewards fishermen who use gear that reduces bycatch, which includes all the unintended marine life caught including dolphins and whales. The Ocean Defenders Alliance is a group of dedicated volunteers who seek out and remove potentially damaging gear abandoned or lost at sea. Facebook groups such as “Balloons Blow” look to reduce the amount of damaging pollution through peaceful encouragement. Numerous nonprofit animal rescues dot the coastlines on either American coastline. Involvement with these organizations is critical to building a grassroots effort to prevent future entanglements. Whales like Scarlet, Delta, and the uncounted individuals never documented deserve to live peacefully without needlessly suffering the fallout of man’s trepidation into their home.

*UPDATE* Dec 16th, 2016:

She's back!  Over two months later I had the privilege of being part of a crew that re-sighted Scarlet off the coast of Newport Beach!  She's looking healthier and the recession of her parasites has left her skin quite silvery.  Other whale watching outfits misidentified this whale as a new individual but dorsal and fluke analysis proved her identity!  I was very happy to see her again and although she is not completely healed yet her recovery has gone quite well.  My guess is that she will need as much time to forage as possible before departing to the winter grounds.  I consider it an honor to have had the opportunity to document her progress.  

Her story is not over by any means, I hope to document this whale many more times over what will hopefully be a long and fruitful life.  Thank you Scarlet for everything you have taught us, and thank you in advance for what you continue to teach us!  

*UPDATE* April 16th, 2017:

She's doing great!  Scarlet was seen within Long Beach Harbor apparently foraging and doing fine!  Her healing silvery skin is now the typical Humpback black.  Right side body and dorsal photos taken by Erik Combs of Harbor Breeze Cruises were compared to some of the confirmed photos I took from the December 16th encounter and a match was made!  I can't properly express how thrilled I am at the stunning recovery this animal has made.  I hope she makes her way down to Orange County for a reunion!  

You can learn more about whale identification, rescue, and sustainable seafood at the links below (Links will open in another window):

*UPDATE* April 23rd, 2017:

Scarlet has died.

There is so much to talk about regarding her passing that it is going to require a separate article.  On April 20th after receiving a tip from Ryan Lawler of Newport Coastal Adventures who had been contacted by a private boater the whale watching boat I was working on went to investigate.

A few photos of the submerged tail matched her color pattern, I sent photos immediately to NOAA with all of the relevant GPS and timestamp data included.  Although the pictures did not show her fluke pattern in full detail I knew in my heart which whale I was looking at and have been devastated ever since.

We do not know if her death has been caused as a result of her entanglement, or if she succumbed to the same toxic algal blooms that have been impacting local sea life lately.  We might never know if her body isn't allowed to wash back ashore.  

Dale Frink Photography will never seek out financial benefit or media attention from the passing of a whale.  I will fight for the truth, answer questions to those who ask, and I will advocate that the stories of her told have meaning, as I did for Wally last year.  The glory seekers who are using Scarlet's name to promote their own agendas are, in my opinion, disgusting.

Scarlet's death is not the end of her story.  Like all living beings our existence is not defined by our time on this planet, but by the lingering impact of our presence even after we are gone.  If what Scarlet has taught us helps save the life of even one future living creature, then she will not have perished in vain.

I am grateful she no longer knowns hunger, torment, or pain.  There are stories of how native peoples of North America would rebury the head of a whale they had hunted as a show of respect and gratitude for feeding their tribe, and so the whale can be reborn in the next life.  I am sorry she will not be shown any similar courtesy.

Scarlet's Profile at Happywhale

Delta's Profile at Happywhale

Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch

Whale Disentanglement Info from NOAA