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Freed whale calf seen feasting on bunker fish off Montauk

The humpback calf whose tail was anchored to the bottom of the Atlantic off Jones Beach State Park for at least four days until a herculean rescue freed him from two tons of fishing gear is surviving — and, while not swimming normally, has been feasting on bunker fish off Montauk.

“It’s really great news; sometimes we can go for weeks, we can go for years, before we understand the fate of disentangled whale,” one of his lead rescuers, Scott Landry, director of the marine animal entanglement response team at the Center for Coastal Studies, a Provincetown, Massachusetts-based nonprofit, said by telephone.

The 4-year-old was seen swimming and identified on Aug. 19 and 22 by Arthur Kopelman, president, the Coastal Research & Education Society of Long Island, of West Sayville.

That was about three weeks after Landry, part of a multiagency team, succeeded in what he termed one of the top five most difficult entanglements.

The steel cables and one-inch thick rope mooring the humpback to the sea bed were hidden from view and would have to be hoisted up, first by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel and then by a much larger Army Corps of Engineers ship. And even the Army Corps’ bolt cutters could not slice through the cable; Landry’s team had to borrow their hacksaws too.

“The wounds were apparent; you can’t mistake it,” Kopelman said by telephone. One photograph shows what look like sizable gashes in the calf’s flukes, the lobes of a whale’s tail that give it a T shape, and along the tail stock, the section between the body and the flukes.

“It looks like it’s healing but that’s the best I can say.”

Humpbacks are one of three whales in this area whose numbers are declining due to what NOAA calls an unusual mortality event. Only 896 humpbacks were tallied in 2015 in the Atlantic. The other two species at risk of becoming extinct are the minke whale and the even more imperiled right whale.

For the last decade or so, New Yorkers have been seeing more whales; researchers suspect this is because the ocean is cleaner and bunker fish more abundant as a result.

The young humpback has yet to be named; researchers wait because they are so uncertain the whales will live long enough to become adults. But the calf’s mother, named Nile because the white stripe under her fluke resembles that river in Egypt, is fairly well known — and her family’s history demonstrates the sorry frequency with which entanglements have become what Landry called part of the life