The search is on for an entangled gray whale seen off the coast of California. The animal has a metal frame wrapped around its head, and officials are calling on local boat captains to help them track it.

Gray whales are currently working their way up the California coastline on their northbound migration. The behemoths swim over 10,000 miles each year between Mexico's nursery lagoons and feeding grounds in the Arctic, and this is already the fourth entangled whale to surface on this leg of the journey.

The animal was last seen near Goleta in Santa Barbara County, but it vanished before rescuers could make it to the scene. Captain Dave Anderson, who leads Orange County's whale disentanglement team was also unable to help the whale after he spotted it near Newport Harbor. At the time, dense fog and the unique positioning of the metal frame prevented Anderson and his team from deploying a tracking buoy. 

"We felt very uncertain about what damage it would cause to the whale with this unusual entanglement," Anderson told the OC Register. "With darkness closing in, we thought it was best to document the last location and hope for the best."

Gray whales are extremely resilient, and we've seen them survive worse injuries, but the frame could eventually hinder this animal's ability to feed. The origins of the metal structure are still up for debate: many commenters online have suggested it's a crab pot, but experienced fishermen seem to disagree. They suggest it's rather part of an industrial rack designed to suspend mussels and oysters in the water column.

Heart wrenching as the predicament is, officials urge everyone to remember that these giants are extremely powerful. Gray whales are harmless filter feeders, but a whack from a fluke or flipper could be deadly. A rescue attempt by untrained divers or boaters poses extreme risk to all involved. 

Even for experts, cutting this animal free will not be an easy task. Not only do some bars appear to be embedded in the skin near the blowhole, but another could also be resting inside the whale's mouth.

"Do not approach [the whale]. Do not try to disentangle it," says researcher and former NOAA marine mammal observer Alisa Schulman-Janiger. Instead, take photographs and jot down as many details about the sighting as possible. Try to stay with the animal and call (877) SOS-WHALE or hail the US Coast Guard for assistance. 

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Top header image: Gilad Rom/Flickr