Three Bodega Bay fisherman aboard a crab boat freed a migrating gray whale from the fish-net ropes that had entangled the mammal at least since April 17, when rescues were attempted off the coast of Southern California.

Skipper Mark Anello, 34, and his two-man crew on the Cape Ommaney spotted buoys skimming across the surface about 6 p.m. Thursday. At the time, Anello's 48-foot wooden boat was about four miles off the southern Mendocino Coast, between Gualala and Point Arena.

Anello's father, Tony Anello, owner of Bodega Bay's Spud Point Crab Co., said the whale struggled at first as the crew attempted to free it from the lines that would-be rescuers off Orange County were unable to remove.

"You know that whale could have destroyed the boat," Anello said. But, then the 40-foot whale "just kind of calmed down, and they pulled everything off it."

The fishermen worked for about 90 minutes, using 12-foot, hooked bamboo poles with hooks on the end, to pull the last of the debris from the mammal weighing about 40 tons.

Anello said his son and the crew told him the freed whale then "swam around and kind of followed the boat for a while, sort of like saying thank-you. Then it left." Mark Anello was sleeping after 24 hours of crab fishing and could not be reached Friday afternoon.

The crew returned to Bodega Bay with all of the gear it had removed from the whale, including labeled orange buoys that had been placed by <NO1><NO>staffers of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center of Laguna Beach. They attached the buoys marked with "PMMC" to make tracking the whale easier.

The people who came to the animal's aid in Southern California dubbed it "June."

The whale was spotted the last week off April off the Central Coast, near Gorda about 50 miles south of Monterey, and was still dragging 50 to 100 feet of net line and debris. Gray whales swim north along the coast each year as part of their annual migration, with their numbers in Southern California peaking in recent weeks.

On Friday, Melissa Sciaccia, director of development at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, confirmed that the orange buoys removed from the whale by Mark Anello and his crew were same ones that had been attached to it in Southern California.

"We are 100 percent confirming that it is June," Sciaccia said.

"June is free. All is well."

Tony Anello said he is proud that his son, a graduate of Forestville's El Molino High and a fourth-generation fisherman, took the time and risk to free the whale of the lines.

"It took a fisherman to do it," Tony Anello said. "He's a steward of the ocean."