Freedom Fighter
Ed Lyman '88G employs old whaling techniques to release humpbacks from lines and nets

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LAST SPRING, ON MARCH 2, ED LYMAN '88G was skimming through the water off the coast of Maui, Hawaii, his feet braced for balance, a taut line burning against his gloved hands, salt spray spitting across the bow of his inflatable craft, stinging his eyes. About 50 feet ahead of him, attached to the other end of the line, was a 40-ton humpback whale.

When the creature slowed, Lyman and his colleague, David Matilla, hauled themselves, hand over hand, up close behind the whale, who was trailing a monstrous tangle of fishing gear. The men clipped a buoy to the mess of lines, then dropped back, as the whale swam on, slowed by the drag of the gear and the buoy. They repeated this routine several times—a technique based on the old whaling tradition called "kegging," which involved barrels instead of buoys to slow the giants down and keep them from diving. The experience of being towed behind a whale, known as "a Nantucket sleigh ride," also derives its name from New England whaling expeditions.

After several hours, Lyman's whale finally tired enough for the team to move in with the flying knife, a curved blade on the end of a 40-foot pole that can be released, leaving the blade attached only to the end of a rope and allowing rescuers to manipulate the knife from a safe distance behind the whale.

Lyman worked carefully, methodically, as he has done on the 50 or so other whale rescues he has been involved with in the past dozen years. "You can work right behind a whale with the fluke brushing the boat and be pretty safe," says Lyman, who occasionally spends 10 or 20 seconds perched on the back of a whale when he attaches a buoy. "We always try to let the animal know what we're doing, exactly where we are," he says.

Sometimes, of course, he can't avoid working in the danger zone, forward of the tail and flippers. Lyman once came eye-to-eye with a whale as he struggled to free a line running through its mouth. "He raised his head out of the water, almost as if he was trying to get a bead on us," says Lyman. "Then he took a swipe with his tail." In this case, the only thing the rescuers suffered was a good scare and a boat swamped with water. But whale rescue is a dangerous business, even for professionals. Well-meaning amateurs have occasionally lost their lives in over-zealous efforts to free tangled creatures.

Lyman is one of only eight or 10 people in the country who are trained and certified for whale disentanglement. Before moving to Hawaii, Lyman worked for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, where he worked with fishermen on reducing entanglement and occasionally helped to free right whales. Today, as rescue coordinator at NOAA's Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Lyman deals mostly with humpbacks, who return each year to breed and raise their young in these waters. Listed as an endangered species in the United States, the worldwide humpback population, once thought to be about 200,000, now hovers around 15,000.

When he's not out on "whale 911" calls, Lyman, who earned a master's in zoology at UNH, gives educational talks and presentations, as well as providing research assistance to scientists who need to get close to whales in order to study them. He is always at the ready, though, for calls that come in on the NOAA Fisheries Hotline from boaters or fishermen reporting a distressed marine mammal. Some of the calls, of course, are false alarms. Seen from a distance or through the water, a white flipper or even a calf swimming close to its mother can be mistaken for a tangle of fishing gear. Between 2001 and 2007, there were 146 reports of distressed marine mammals; 89 of these were entanglement situations. And 25 involved large whales.

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