Benicia Man Makes an Art of Saving Whales

Pieter Folkens sits in his Benicia studio, in front of his painting of a whale.

Pieter and the whale... Pieter Folkens points to an image of a rescue by his team of a humpback whale near Monterey.

It is one thing to sit in a comfy office lamenting the threats posed to whales by fishing tackle, crab nets and buoy lines. But Pieter Folkens of Benicia has never been the kind to sit in an office too long. Dozens of times over the last three decades, he’s found his own tail in a small rubber boat, rescuing creatures thousands of times his size. His description of said activities could go in the great bin of understated quotes.

“The anxiety is quite high,” Folkens said, during one of his quiet office days.

Folkens disentangled his first mammal back in 1980 — it was a sea lion. He was hooked — Folkens that is. Since then, he’s helped rescue dozens of whales and other mammals from the tethers of fishing gear, a point which gives him quiet satisfaction.

“We tend not to wear it on our sleeve,” Folkens said. “But it’s present on the inside.”

In 1996, Folkens helped create the Alaska Whale Foundation to study and protect humpback whales in Southeast Alaska. He now leads the Whale Entanglement Team, a group of around sixty experts on the West Coast who can respond to whale emergencies within two hours of a report.

“So we’re, maybe with our boat and everything, a thousand pounds,” Folkens said, “going up against an animal who’s 80 thousand pounds — who’s pissed off, upset, fear.”

The team employs knives at the end of long carbon poles to cut away the ropes and lines entangling the whales. They attach buoys and other methods to slow the whales and keep them from diving during the rescue. The group has sometimes tailed injured whales all the way to Mexico to free them from their bonds.

“We get out there and these animals are trying to run away from us,” Folkens said.

Folkens has had a passion for whales since he was eight-years-old and discovered a whale fossil while backpacking with his family. He began to draw the creature - imagining what it would’ve looked like 13 millions of years ago. In school he was constantly in trouble for doodling on math papers.

Today Folkens is a sought-out wildlife illustrator, providing aquatic mammal drawings for everything from science books to federal agencies. He also helped create special effects for films like Flipper and Free Willy. It all helps complete the picture of why he’s willing to put his life on the line to save these roaming giants.

“A lot of sadness,” Folkens said of the rescues. “Because somebody out there, one of our human beings, caused the death of an animal that was completely innocent.”

Folkens said the number of rescues has jumped way up this year. His team has already responded to sixty calls of entangled animals this year— ten times the number of calls from two years ago.

Folkens believes that’s partially due to new protections that have resulted in a significant population rebound of some whales. He said more awareness among the public to spot and report entangled animals has also contributed. He said the coming El Nino which is warming up ocean waters, may be drawing more whales to the Bay Area to dine.

“I think the whole system’s going to crash next year because of El Nino,” Folkens predicted. “So these animals know something’s up and so they’re packing on the fat right now.”

Folkens said the key to the rescues, is leaving emotions at home. He said the team retains its composure during the precarious rescues - during and after. Once the ropes are cutaway and a whale released, there are no high-fives among team members in the boat. They simply slap their helmets to announce a successful operation.

Folkens said the newly freed whales don’t flip a tail or breach in a demonstration of thanks - yet sometimes they’ll turn back to cast a curious eye toward their temporary visitors. Electronic tags are use occasionally used to track freed whales to monitor their recovery.

He showed a picture of a humpback whale recently freed near Monterey. Six weeks after the rescue, the whale returned to the same spot and was photographed breaching — the gaping wound on its tail where the rope of a crab pot had dug-in was nearly healed.

“This is when that feels really good,” Folkens said, “when we saw the animal come back and being a whale again.”  

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