MONTEREY (CBS SF) – A specially trained team of disentanglement experts searched the waters off the Monterey County coast Thursday for a gray whale spotted earlier in the week caught up on fishing nets.

The team from the San Francisco Bay Area Whale Entanglement Network, the Alaska Whale Foundation, and the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory sailed north from Big Sur without spotting the animal, said Monica DeAngelis, a marine biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“They’ve got a helicopter heading up just a little farther north to see if they can spot it,” she said.

KCBS’ Rebecca Corral Reports:

By 2:45 p.m. Thursday, the team abandoned the boat and helicopter search for the day without spotting the whale, according to Jim Milbury, an NOAA spokesman.

Team members also checked out reports of possible sightings off Half Moon Bay and Pacific Grove without success, said Milbury.

The 40-foot gray whale, tangled with rope and debris, was first spotted off Laguna Beach in Southern California on April 17 when members of the Pacific Marine Center were able to cut it partially free. They also managed to attach buoys to the remaining rope for better tracking.

When the whale, nicknamed June, was next seen a week later, on Tuesday morning near Big Sur, it was still towing rope and buoys, and DeAngelis predicted it would begin to swim slower after being entangled so long.

“We believe that it’s entangled in its mouth. So at this point the baleen may have suffered some damage, and it may also cause the animal to not be able to feed as well as a normal animal that has not been entangled,” DeAngelis said.

Gray whales can go for months without eating, DeAngelis said, but there is concern the rope could sever the whale’s pectoral fin, a much more serious injury.

Some 18,000 gray whales migrate from Baja north to Alaska in order to feed.

DeAngelis said the team would attach a telemetry buoy to the whale once they find it, then try to remove some of the ropes once they have assessed whether it is safe to do so.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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