By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Marine mammal rescue teams were hoping on Tuesday to renew their attempt to disentangle a blue whale found enmeshed in fishing line off the Southern California coast a day after initial efforts to free the giant creature failed.
Rescuers broke off their first encounter with the 80-foot long (24-m long) whale on Monday when the animal appeared to become distressed, said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Blue whales, an endangered species that can grow up to 100 feet in length and weigh close to 200 tons, rank as the largest living animals on Earth. They migrate north along the Pacific Coast in summer to the Arctic, leaving behind their tropical wintering grounds off Mexico.
Whale entanglements are not uncommon. Last year, 61 whales were found caught up in fishing gear, nets and buoy lines, and nearly 40 have been reported enmeshed so far this year along the West Coast, Milstein said.
But most entanglements involve gray and humpback whales, which tend to swim closer to shore, while blue whales are more common in the open ocean, according to Milstein.
He said the animal sought by rescuers this week was only the second blue whale ever reported entangled off the West Coast, and the first officials have tried to free.
The whale was first spotted about 30 miles (48 km) off San Diego over the weekend and then again on Monday by the crew of a whale-watching tour vessel near Dana Point, about 65 miles to the north, dragging about 100 feet of fishing lines and buoys.
The line, probably attached to crab traps trailing beneath the surface, appeared to be caught around one of the whale's front flippers and looped over its tail, Milstein said, encumbering its ability to swim and feed.
Crew members from the whale-watching boat, joined in the rescue by NOAA officers, local harbor patrol and sheriff's deputies, spent hours trying to slice away the entanglement using cutters on long poles when the whale surfaced to breathe.
The effort grew more difficult as the animal appeared to become agitated and began submerging for longer periods of time, and rescuers ultimately gave up for the day, Milstein said.
By Tuesday morning, authorities had lost sight of the whale and were asking tour boats and other vessels to be on the lookout for the whale in hopes of making a second rescue attempt.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Marguerita Choy)